After three very full months across America’s highways and backroads, our big US road trip ultimately came to an end. Now the summer travel season has concluded too. So it’s now time for an update!
This summer trip is the longest journey we’ve embarked on with our now one-year-old baby. It’s also the biggest trip we’ve attempted since this dreaded pandemic began. Each has created its own unique series of challenges. Yet this lengthy road trip across the US ultimately proved to be so fulfilling.
During the six years we spent traveling the world to 100 countries, very little of that was actively roaming the US. There is so much of this huge country left untrodden to us. So while international travel remains difficult and complicated for us into 2021, we took it as an opportunity to more deeply explore our home country.
We are of the firm opinion that National Parks collectively make up the greatest assets to travel in the US. So armed with a National Park system pass, we set off to visit as many NPS sites as we reasonably could, all while checking out other interesting destinations in between. Having spent the bulk of the pandemic in flat Florida, we were particularly excited to hit the trails across the mountains of the American west!
In This Post:
- 🗺️ Shaping Our 2021 US Road Trip
- 📊 Travel Stats
- 🏆 Best of US Road Trip
- 🏞️ Best National Parks
- 🏛️ Best Other NPS Sites
- 🌆 Best US Towns
- 🎡 Best Tourist Towns
- 🥾 Best Hikes
- 🏨 Best Hotels
- ✈️ Where to Next?
Shaping Our 2021 US Road Trip
While the outdoors and National Parks were a big draw to this journey, there were a number of factors that ultimately helped to form our route. Reflecting back, it felt like some bizarro world of travel to us. A few years ago, I never would have fathomed such a trip would be in our future:
- car travel,
- with a baby,
- on a budget,
- during a lingering pandemic,
- across the US.
🚗 Logging exactly 90 days from start to finish, this is now the longest road trip we’ve ever taken anywhere in the world. Prior to this, the longest road trip we ever took was three weeks across South Africa. During all these years of travel, we’ve grown accustomed to moving around by bus, rail, plane, and ship. We’ve always reveled in the logistical planning of linking various public transit options to circumnavigate the globe. But when embarking on any lengthy trip in the the US, having a vehicle is nearly a requirement.
The many miles and long hours in the car during this trip was somewhat of an unfamiliar travel experience for us. The freedom of having our own wheels felt great. I had forgotten how much fun it is to take a scenic drive across curvy, mountainous roads. Being able to pull off the highway for random roadside attractions made it all better. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of driving across the US was the diversity of landscapes – transitioning from beaches to bayous to desert to mountains to farmland and everything in between.
That said, with so many miles on the road, we always greatly appreciated arriving to walkable destinations where we could simply park the car and roam around on our feet.
👶 Another new-to-us travel experience was learning the ropes of traveling with a baby. Our daughter, Harper, turned one just as we departed for this grand adventure. So we celebrated by introducing her to the travel life! We loved having her along with us. She greatly influenced our journey, as we got to show her America the beautiful.
Since we wanted to limit her time stuck in a car seat, we planned short hauls every step of the way. Whereas in the past we wouldn’t blink an eye at covering a 12-hour drive in one day, such a distance would now take us a minimum of 3-4 days, with many stops in between. We limited our daily drive time to not exceed four hours in any given day. This gave us a welcomed chance to discover places we’d otherwise blow right past. We’re proud to have stuck to our 4-hour car limit nearly every leg of the journey, only breaking our self-imposed rule twice (6.5 hrs San Antonio ➡️ Van Horn TX and 6 hrs Denver CO ➡️ Pinedale WY).
For the most part, Harper was a great travel baby and seemed to enjoy taking in all the new places. This baby was born to travel! But there were bumps along the way. For instance, we learned the hard way that we absolutely could not give her milk before a twisty mountainous drive. Yet our biggest challenge is when she hit a sleep regression during the middle of our trip, resulting in lengthy middle-of-night wakings that lasted more than a month. Thankfully, that’s since ceased. But it left us exhausted almost every day from the time we got to Colorado in mid-May until we reached Ohio in early July.
🦠 We also navigated the ever-evolving pandemic conditions and its related restrictions, while trying to maintain personal safety standards of our own. During this trip spanning April-July, conditions changed as we traveled from state to state and week to week. Masking was commonplace one day and non-existent the next, only to return again down the road.
Cases lessened so much in some areas early in the summer, conditions often felt completely back to normal. Yet hitting occasional closures would remind us otherwise. Meanwhile pandemic-related staffing shortages were very noticeable, as “help wanted” signs accompanied lengthy delays nearly everywhere we roamed. The many travel-deprived Americans who hit the road only heightened this effect, as many destinations across the US saw record-breaking crowds.
We used these 40 US Road Trip Travel Tips for 2021 to help us deal with these changing conditions.
💸 Finally, we set off to achieve this big US road trip on a budget, as we always do. This was certainly a challenge, as the US is a far more costly travel destination than most countries we tend to roam, particularly so with accommodation. Yet with much advanced planning, we managed to keep our total expenses to an average of about $100 per day for all three of us, inclusive of lodging, gas, meals, and attractions. We’re pretty happy with that.
A few tactics we used to help ease the financial burden were making very early hotel bookings, seeking low-cost destinations, using inexpensive motels, utilizing hotel rewards programs, cash-back offers on gas, national park pass, free activities, picnicking, and happy hours. Perhaps delving into such methods further deserves a forthcoming post of its own.
In the end, each of these limitations that helped shape this trip are also what helped to make it so gratifying.
Travel Stats – Roaming Around the US 2021
We sure packed in a lot during those three months!
📆 Duration: 90 days
🇺🇸 States visited: 22 (+DC)
🚗 Road miles traveled: 12,270 (19,747 km)
🥾 Hiked/walked: 408 miles (657 km)
🏛️ UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 8
🏞️ Total Nat’l Park System sites visited: 43, including:
- National Parks: 14
- National Monuments: 9
- National Historical Parks: 5
- National Seashores: 3
- National Historic Sites: 2
- National Parkways: 2
- National Trails: 2
- National Historic Trails: 2
- Other NPS Sites: 4
🏨 Number of places stayed: 56
🛏️ Average length of stay: 1.4 days (changed accommodation 62x)
- Hotels/motels: 46 rooms | 61 nights
- Friends & family: 8 homes | 20 nights
- Home rental: 1 Airbnb | 7 nights
- Nat’l Park cabin: 1 cabin | 1 night
💵 Avg cost/night of paid accommodation: $59.54
🍺 Breweries visited: 49
Awards for Best Places of 2021 US Road Trip
We tried to sample some of the best of the US, from its national parks to its brews. So this post is an attempt to recap some of the top spots from our perspective.
If you share similar travel interests as us, perhaps our favorites from this most recent trip may provide you with some travel inspiration or ideas within the US. As we began discussing our favorite destinations while the Olympics were airing, we thought it would be fun to give out our own bronze, silver, and gold medals for each places on this trip we enjoyed most. 🥉 🥈 🥇
So our first awards go to…
🏞️ Best National Parks
There are a total of 63 US National Parks, and we’d love to eventually visit them all. Adding the 14 national parks we visited during this trip, my total tally of 32 now includes over half of the network. Prior favorites of ours include Grand Canyon NP (AZ), Zion NP (UT), Rocky Mountain NP (CO), and Glacier Bay NP (AK).
Meanwhile on this journey across the US, the many National Parks we roamed were all great. So it was a tough task picking the best of the bunch from this trip.
🏆 Honorable Mentions:
Arches National Park (UT): Incredible hikes through beautiful desert scenery to dozens of the namesake rock formations make this an awesome park to roam.
Badlands National Park (SD): The otherworldly landscape, vertigo-inducing hikes, and abundant big horn sheep make this well worth a trip to South Dakota.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM): You must experience the largest cave chamber on the continent to fully comprehend its grandiosity and its beauty.
Grand Teton National Park (WY): With a location nearly connected to Yellowstone, it could be argued that the beauty of its mountain scenery may even surpass its neighbor to the north.
White Sands National Park (NM): The largest gypsum dunes found on the planet offer stunning views, interesting treks, wild sunsets, and even sand sledding.
🥉 Canyonlands National Park (UT)
Author Edward Abbey may have said it best, remarking that Canyonlands is “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth – there is nothing else like it anywhere.”
When driving through the exotic terrain of Canyonlands, it seems there is canyon after canyon carving through the land here. Pictures don’t quite do this national park justice. Immersing yourself deep into this desert wonderland full of towering features is what really brings on the awe.
In the section of the park appropriately named “Islands in the Sky,” the views seem to go on forever. But we’re reminded they don’t since the scenery changes at every turn.
Meanwhile, the lesser-visited southern section of the park, known as the Needles, offers even more dramatic terrain to get lost in. The deep narrow canyons, towering spires, and varied landscape offered some of the most fun hiking trails we’ve ever trekked across anywhere in the world.
Travel Tips for Canyonlands:
- Consider staying in Monticello instead of Moab. It’s closer to Canyonlands’ Needles entrance and has lower hotel rates.
- For those who trek, don’t miss Chesler Park Loop in the Needles section, now one of our favorite hikes ever (more on that later in this post).
- Spring and Fall months tend to bring most comfortable weather for exploring Canyonlands, but Spring also tends to be the busiest time to visit.
🥈 Yellowstone National Park (WY)
There are so many reasons why the first National Park in the US is often cited as one of the best. For us, Yellowstone is amazing for three main reasons: (1) geothermal features, (2) incredible wildlife, and (3) beautiful landscapes.
It’s those geothermal features that makes Yellowstone stand out on a global scale.
Nowhere else on planet earth has the breadth and abundance of geothermal activity as Yellowstone. In fact, over half of all the world’s known geothermal features are found in in this national park, containing more than 10,000! Bubbling mud pots, hissing fumaroles (steam vents), and colorful hot springs collectively are some of these interesting geothermal features scattered all throughout the Yellowstone.
But it’s the erupting geysers that really put on a show! Old Faithful is the most famous and most predictable with a beautiful eruption. Yet we were really wowed by Grand Geyser which spurts even higher. Other unpredictable geyser eruptions provided an exciting surprise to those who just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
A little luck is nice to have with geyser eruptions, as with the awesome wildlife spotting opportunities. Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, with a total of 67 mammal species! It took us a week, but we eventually managed to spot each member of Yellowstone’s Big 5: bear, moose, elk, buffalo, and wolf.
They were found all throughout the park’s scenic backdrops from snow-capped mountains to scenic valleys, lush forests, beautiful lakes, and jaw-dropping canyons. All this varied terrain made for some great hikes, with some of the trails also flirting with the geothermal features. It’s all why Yellowstone is a well-deserved favorite within the NPS system.
Travel Tips for Yellowstone:
- Plan for a bare minimum of 3-4 days to explore. It’s a huge park with so much to see and do! A week can be ideal.
- Book accommodation (or camping reservations) far in advance. Places get booked up quickly, often leaving inferior high-priced options for those who wait.
- Summer brings the best weather, but also the thickest crowds and highest prices. Consider shoulder seasons of September and late May.
🥇 Glacier National Park (MT)
It’s often referred to as the Crown of the Continent. Across a million acres of rugged wilderness on the northern fringes of Montana lays abundant wildlife, 175 mountains, 131 named lakes, and 26 glaciers – the park’s namesake.
During the week we spent at Glacier NP during early June, we were met with less-than-ideal conditions. Cold rainy weather was almost nonstop. The main Going-to-the-Sun Road in the park remained closed since they were still plowing the prior months’ thick snowfall. A number of the park’s 900 miles of trails were impassible due to snow cover and dangerous melting ice conditions. To limit crowding, the park instituted a restrictive ticketed-entry system that made it difficult to get around. To top it all off, the Canadian side of the park was entirely off-limits due to pandemic-related border closures.
Yet even with all the closures and gloomy weather, we both agreed:
This is now our favorite US National Park.
The rain could not damper the sense of awe as we roamed around the glacier-fed lakes and soaring mountain peaks. Instead, it just helped fuel the roaring waterfalls. Meanwhile road closures forced us to get creative, visiting more remote sections of the park where wildlife encounters were plentiful.
Grizzly bears and moose greeted us, as we nervously twisted through the curves of the Park’s awesome hiking trails. To rest our legs, scenic boat tours glided us across calm blue lakes as we learned about the local ecology. It felt particularly satisfying to end the days by sipping a frosty brew while yet another moose strolls on by with the magnificent backdrop of Glacier’s looming mountain peaks.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is nothing short of spectacular and already has us yearning for a return trip to see more of this natural splendor during a time when the sun is out, the trails are clear, and the roads fully open.
Travel Tips for Glacier NP:
- Book far in advance. Accommodation in & around Glacier is sometimes booked solid one year out.
- Best weather is July-August, but also the busiest. June is less busy but has closures and snow on the ground. Early Sept can be a strong consideration for decent weather and less crowds.
- Monitor ticketed-entry requirements introduced in 2021 for access the main road in the park and is speculated to be implemented in future summer seasons.
- Going-to-the-Sun road it often a highlight in Glacier but explore elsewhere too. We found the Two Medicine section to be underrated and the Many Glaciers section was our favorite and where we saw the most wildlife.
- Glacier is one of a few National Parks you can access by train. Amtrak’s Empire Builder, from Chicago to Seattle, has three stops around the park – with access to shuttles, tours, rental cars, and hotels. Read more about What it’s Like to Ride the Amtrak Empire Builder Across the US.
🏛️ Best Other NPS Units:
While there are only 63 official National Parks, there are a grand total of 423 official units within the National Park System. In addition to the national parks, the National Park System further includes National Monuments (84), National Historic Sites (74), National Historic Parks (61), National Memorials (31) and more.
During this Summer 2021 road trip we visited a grand total of 43 NPS units. The aforementioned national parks tended to be our favorites. So here are our top picks for the best of the rest, among the other wonderful NPS sites visited.
🏆 Honorable Mentions:
Cape Hatteras National Seashore (NC): What’s not to like about historic lighthouses, towering sand dunes, remote beaches, and an island only accessible by ferry?
Devils Tower National Monument (SD): It’s one of the largest monolith’s in the world and the first national monument in the US. We were further intrigued by the deep Native American lore of this sacred site.
Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site (MT): This preserved 1860s-era ranch brings cowboy culture to life thanks to the most informative park rangers we encountered all trip. Visiting this unassuming NPS site was admittedly an afterthought. It turned out to be the most unexpectedly enjoyable NPS site of our trip.
🥉 Colorado National Monument (CO)
The sheer canyons, looming rock formations, and high plateaus feel like an extension Utah, rather than Colorado. It’s easy to draw comparisons to nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Yet Colorado National Monument stands on its own merits.
The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive provided an ultra-scenic way to see the park on a roadway that hugs the side of the steep canyons’ edge. Even though this harrowing route left me with white knuckles and sweaty palms, it was also one of the most fun and scenic drives of our trip. Having to dodge big horn sheep in the roadway only added to the wow-factor.
In between the cliffside curves, it was nice to able to stop at the many pullouts to soak in the views, learn about the crazy geology, or watch rock climbers seemingly defy gravity. Meanwhile, hiking trails along the canyons’ rims gave us an opportunity to carefully stretch our legs.
In our opinion, this “monument” should really be a national park. We’ve since learned that Colorado NM meets the criteria for national park status, as local residents and politicians are pushing for a change. It now has our support too!
Travel Tips for Colorado NM:
- Only about a 90-minute drive from Arches NP, this is a great park to add if already in the area. Consider taking Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (U-128) for a scenic route along the Colorado River that nearly connects these two NPS sites.
- Combine Canyon Rim + Window Rock trails for a short (1.5-mile roundtrip) and easy hike from the Visitor Center that takes in some of the most spectacular scenery. For a short hike that’s more technical, don’t miss Devil’s Kitchen.
- It’s possible to experience this park in one day. Pack a lunch.
- Stay nearby in Grand Junction. It’s a neat city (more later in this post).
🥈 Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park (WV)
We love this NPS site for its one-two punch of history amidst a beautiful natural backdrop in the West Virginia mountains.
At this scenic point where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, a quaint historic town bears witness to important events that changed American history. History books note Harpers Ferry as the location of the last major event leading to the Civil War. It is often referred to as the place where the end of slavery began.
Harpers Ferry is most notable for abolitionist leader John Brown’s 1859 raid to free slaves and start a revolt across the US South. Even though his attempt to seize the Federal Armory failed, which caused him to become the first person executed for treason in the US, his actions are credited with fueling the flames that led to a divided country, ultimately achieving his vision.
Today Harpers Ferry remains preserved as a National Historic Park that delves into the town’s past, with many 19th-century buildings converted to museums. It helps bring the history alive. For us, roaming around Harpers Ferry feels like wandering through a past era. It’s one of those places that seems easy to visit in an hour or so, but can deserve an entire day (or more) to fully appreciate.
In our opinion, Harpers Ferry is a must-do for anyone exploring US history. But there’s also a beautiful natural side to uncover here. When visiting in 1783, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that Harpers Ferry is “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Today the Appalachian Trail passes right through this scenic town, very close to its midpoint. For those of us not hiking the entirety of that famous 2,190-mile trek, Harpers Ferry provides a great opportunity for a shorter jaunt up to a view that Jefferson remarked as a scene “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Travel Tips for Harper’s Ferry:
- Only about 75 minutes drive from DC, this is a great add-on to consider if visiting the nation’s capital.
- Parking is tricky and map apps lead visitors astray with bad directions. Park at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center and take the shuttle into the historic district. Alternatively, check if spaces are available by the train station.
- With 22 miles of trails, hikers should plan to spend an entire day (or more) here.
- There’s some decent rafting in this area and also a great brewery nearby (more on this later).
🥇 Chaco Culture National Historical Park (NM)
These millennia-old Puebloan dwellings are said to be among the most important pre-Colombian ruin sites in the US. This NPS site is also one of only 11 cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites in the US. Despite such accolades, these ancient Puebloan ruins sit somewhat hidden in the New Mexican desert, with few visitors embarking on the rough gravel road to get here.
But those who make the journey are rewarded by the ability to explore what is described as “the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico,” enjoying them nearly all to yourself. These Chaco ruins are not just a single site either. There are multiple preserved ruin sites spread across miles of beautifully rugged cliff-laden desert landscape, linked by a scenic drive and many interesting hiking trails.
Great Houses, where construction dates to the mid-800s, welcome visitors inside the structures to imagine what Puebloan life was like over a thousand years ago. While roaming the largest complex, Pueblo Bonita, we were amazed to find the once four-story structure had 600 rooms! You can still crawl around some of these rooms today to see the intricate masonry and ancient architecture from this bygone area.
It’s an eye-opening look at this ancient history that seems often forgotten here in the US. We learned a lot about this remarkable civilization, whose descendants can be found still living in the area today. It’s well worth the journey to this special place in the world!
Travel Tips for Chaco Culture NHP:
- A half day is enough time to experience Chaco’s main sites, but a full day (or more) would be better for those who want to add long hikes and/or more time to deeply explore the many ruins.
- Be sure to pack food and drinks since there are no vendors on site and no supplies available for many miles.
- With good planning and a packed agenda, it is possible to also visit neighboring Aztec Ruins NM – 1.5 hours away – in the same day.
🌆 Best Towns Off the Travel Trail
We stoped into a number of places that aren’t typical tourism destinations in the US, yet we found them to still hold lots of travel appeal. Here are our favorites of this bunch.
🏆 Honorable Mentions:
Grand Junction, CO
Situated on the banks of the Colorado River, we found Grand Junction to be an underrated travel destination in CO. There’s a fun downtown that’s full of bars, restaurants, and breweries. It’s all surrounded by the Northern Hemisphere’s highest wine region, with many vineyards boasting sunny patios to sip on. This all lays in the shadows of the largest flat-top mountain in the world, Grand Mesa. Meanwhile, nearby Colorado Nat’l Monument boasts shear canyons, rock formations, high plateaus, hiking, and scenic drives.
This city surprised us a bit, as we drew favorable comparisons with Savannah and New Orleans. While Mobile is arguably a bit less polished and has fewer attractions in comparison to those two great cities of the south, Mobile still boasts loads of southern charm but without the tourist crowds. We’d like to return for Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, historically the first Carnival in the US. Yet we’d happily go back just to eat more oysters and indulge in happy hours along Dauphin Street.
🥉 New Ulm, MN
We enjoyed each of the random small town stops throughout the Midwest much more than anticipated. This was perhaps best exemplified by New Ulm, in which the midwestern hospitality came alongside German influence in this historic town.
Founded by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, the groundwork they laid is still evident today. A German restaurant, German bakery, and historic German brewery are all still thriving here. New Ulm even has its own Glockenspiel, which is one of the world’s few free-standing carillon clock towers and the first in all of North America. The Hermann the German monument, built in 1888, is an impressive remembrance of German ancestry that is also the 3rd largest copper statue in the US.
It’s one of 23 sites in New Ulm listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That list also includes the only surviving example of New Ulm’s seven early breweries, Schells. It further includes Minnesota’s oldest continuously used bar, the Rathskeller, now in operation for 165 years. We always appreciate a town where you can enjoy a drink in historic settings. And New Ulm delivers!
Travel Tips for New Ulm:
- To see the Glockenspiel in action, there are five chances daily: Noon, 1, 3, 5 and 6 pm.
- For outdoor fun, Flandrau State Park is a nice place in New Ulm. Yet we preferred Minneopa State Park – only 30-minutes away, for its waterfalls and bison.
- Consider a weekend visit for more places to eat & drink. The Rathskeller is open Wed-Sat. The German-American restaurant (Veigel’s Kaiserhoff) is only open Fri-Sat. Schell’s Brewery biere hall has extended hours (’til 8pm) on Fri-Sat, their biergarten is only open seasonally on Saturdays Noon-5:00, and Schell’s separate sour beer brewery – Starkeller – is only open Fri-Sat.
🥈 Missoula, MT
Roughly halfway through this grand road trip across the US, we looked for a city to pause our journey to relax and rest for a week. We chose Missoula. That may have been a mistake because there was a lot to keep us busy in this university town in Montana’s mountains!
We loved strolling through the pleasant city itself and along the banks of the Clark Fork River, which cuts right through downtown. That’s where surfers can hang ten on Brennan’s Wave, then dry off and grab a pint at one of the many breweries scattered all throughout town.
Missoula also has so many fun bars and restaurants, it was difficult to choose among them. So we loved being able to sample from over a dozen food trucks that roll into the weekly Downtown ToNight event at the riverside Caras Park, made complete with live music rocking on stage. Three bustling Saturday morning farmers markets further helped us to get a great taste of the city.
But we found Missoula is also an excellent hub to explore western Montana. To the South, delving into the Bitterroot Valley, we loved the scenic hikes through Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and tracing the steps of Louis & Clark at Travelers Rest State Park.
To the North, wildlife abounds at the National Bison Range. But it’s statues that are plentiful at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. To the East, cowboy history comes to life at the Grants-Kohrs Ranch Nat’l Historic Site.
There are so many interesting places to check out in every direction from this fun Montana city!
Travel Tips for Missoula:
- For birds-eye views of Missoula, park on campus and hike “The M” trail up Mount Sentinel.
- Beer drinkers will rejoice at over a dozen breweries in and around Missoula, including Montana’s largest, Big Sky Brewing Company, and our personal favorite, Highlander Beer.
- For anyone traveling between Yellowstone and Glacier NP, Missoula makes a great low-key stop to recharge.
🥇 Breaux Bridge, LA
This small town deep in the Louisiana bayou was such a pleasant surprise to us. Despite a population of only about 8,000, Breaux Bridge is so full of culture. Cajun culture!
Founded and planned by a widowed 33-year-old woman in 1829, descendants of the French Acadians expelled from Canada have been calling Breaux Bridge home for nearly two centuries now. And they’ve maintained their unique Cajun traditions, which is really what gives this area so much soul and charm.
The Cajun cuisine here is distinctively different, spicy, and delicious! It’s a novelty hearing the Cajun English dialect spoken around town, while also encountering occasional signs in French. Breaux Bridge boasts a quaint downtown full of antique stores, historic buildings, a smattering of restaurants, and loads of character.
Meanwhile the surrounding bayou environment provides an enchanting backdrop to this charismatic little town. Taking a boat tour across the murky waters of the Atchafalaya Swamp provides a great opportunity to spot gators and local birds here in what’s considered to be the largest wetlands in the US.
Breaux Bridge is also known as the Crawfish Capitol of the World. This reputation is celebrated throughout several restaurants serving heaping piles of the shellfish. Perhaps even more appealing is all the Zydeco and Cajun music that fills Breaux Bridge’s restaurants, bars, and dance halls. This little town in the bayou sure packs a punch!
Travel Tips for Breaux Bridge:
- Don’t miss the fantastic Zydeco and Cajun music, so plan a trip for the weekend since performances at most dance halls and other live music venues tend to be Friday and Saturdays.
- Also plan for crawfish season, which runs mid-January to early-July with peak months being March, April and May.
- Learn about cajun cuisine before your visit and plan meals accordingly, as this small town is filled with lots of interesting foodie finds.
- There are a few cheap motels by the highway for those on a budget, but consider spending a bit more to stay at one of Breaux Bridge’s excellent B&Bs.
🎡 Best Tourist Towns:
When visiting national parks and other destinations across the US, it’s inevitable to pass through several popular tourism destinations. Although they can sometimes be overpriced, tacky, and feel inauthentic, American tourist towns do have their place. If you can get past the goofy attractions and abundance of t-shirt shops, America’s tourist towns can be fun spots to let your hair down and enjoy for what they are.
For us, a good ol’ American tourist town is somewhere that plays up its notoriety, has appeal aside from its manufactured attractions, and is full of interesting places to eat, drink and play. So those are exactly the aspects we thought about when considering our favorites here.
🏆 Honorable Mentions:
Jackson, WY – This gateway town to Grand Teton NP (and subsequently Yellowstone) is in an idyllic setting in a mountain valley with loads of great restaurants, the famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, and the town square with its signature antler arches. While Jackson is a great tourist town, steep prices prevent it from ranking higher on our list.
Frisco, CO – Located next to the bustling ski resort town of Breckenridge, Frisco provided a more quaint base for our explorations in the area. The pleasant main street has some great restaurants to dine at, fancy boutiques to peruse, and well-regarded craft breweries. But we also appreciated that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, as Frisco also has a fun dive bar slinging cheap pitchers of PBR. It all lays in the beautiful Rocky Mountain setting with no shortage of outdoor recreation in every direction.
Wisconsin Dells, WI – This is the epitome of a regional tourist town and we thought it was a fun visit in the Midwest. Many people come to the Wisconsin Dells for its numerous water parks. Instead, we thoroughly enjoyed its natural side by taking the beautiful boat ride into the cliff-lined dells themselves. Plenty of restaurants and bars greeted us back on land.
San Antonio, TX – Everything is bigger in Texas including its tourist towns, as the San Antonio CVB boasts a whopping 30+ million tourists each year. Many come to see the Alamo missions, regarded as Texas’s top attraction. We were a little taken back by the gaudy tourist traps lining the street in front of the historic site. But we did really enjoy strolling San Antonio’s pleasant Riverwalk, in addition to the UNESCO-listed San Antonio Missions Nat’l Historical Park. Meanwhile the Mexican mercados in the Historic Market Square gave us a wonderful taste south of the border, as we also loved all the Tex-Mex cuisine found all throughout the city!
Cody, WY – Among each of Yellowstone’s gateway towns (West Yellowstone, Gardiner, etc.), Cody was our favorite. It carries out a delightful balance of having great tourism infrastructure and attractions, without feeling overly touristic and also without the hefty price tags. Cody’s Old Town Trail was like wandering across an outdoor museum of frontier times. Meanwhile, the Cody Cattle Company’s chuckwagon dinner and show was loads of fun and at $35 was among the best value tourist attractions we did during our entire trip.
Savannah, GA – We find Savannah to be one of the most atmospheric and scenic cities in the US. We always enjoy strolling through the 22 squares across Savannah’s historic downtown amidst the many moss draped oak trees. Since this city can get quite hot during the summer, it’s always fun for us to grab to-go drinks for our strolls around town, since Savannah is one of the only cities in the US to allow alcohol consumption all throughout town. The party vibes are strong here in this city that also boasts great Southern cooking, all of which helps to make Savannah so delicious.
🥉 Roswell, NM
When we saw Roswell on the map along our road trip route, we had to stop! But we wondered, would it be worth the visit or is it a tourist trap? We’ve concluded – it’s both.
You may recall Roswell is the location of the supposed 1947 UFO crash. The city has since fully embraced its reputation with UFOs and aliens. Roswell’s welcome signs have flying saucers. The city’s visitor center snaps fun alien photos. The city’s lampposts lining main street shine green with alien eyes.
Even most local businesses in Roswell have alien-themed decorations – and not just those appealing to tourists. It was funny to see local banks, mattress stores, tax agencies, a martial arts studio, gas stations and more all carry the extra-terrestrial theming. In Roswell alien figures are encountered when getting a home loan, buying a new refrigerator, or getting your oil changed. It was a novelty for us to enter a UFO simply to grab a McMuffin.
Then there are the attractions. The International UFO Museum and Research Center provides an intriguing look into the 1947 Roswell Incident that left us questioning what we believe. There’s also a number of hokey attractions like a glow-in-the-dark alien walkthrough or the alien figurines that made for some great funny photos.
Overall, we thought Roswell made for an interesting place to “crash” while roadtripping across New Mexico. Within about a two-hour drive from Carlsbad NP to the south and White Sands NP to the west, Roswell provides quirky and kitschy manufactured fun in between those two natural splendors.
Travel Tips for Roswell:
- An abundance of inexpensive motels throughout Roswell make this a very economical place to stay for a night while connecting New Mexico’s many other worthwhile destinations.
- Don’t take Roswell too seriously. Just come with an open mind and have fun with it.
- A half-day in Roswell is plenty of time to spend here.
- While most of Roswell’s attractions are goofy fun, the UFO Museum and Research Center is thought-provoking with interesting exhibits.
🥈 Ocracoke, NC
This isn’t a true tourist town in the sense of others we’ve ranked in this category. Perhaps that’s what we liked about Orcacoke. This island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a bit off the tourist trail, requiring a lengthy ferry journey. Life on Ocracoke moves slow. The small town has a quaint feel. And the businesses are independently owned – no chains.
Yet the main industry here is indeed tourism, so we suppose it’s best classified as a tourist town. We’re reminded as such when seeing the line wrapped around the Ocracoke Fudge and Ice Cream Shop located next to a t-shirt store. But the real draw of Ocracoke is the pristine beaches, local history, and small-town charm.
Ocracoke has a scenic harbor and is home to one of oldest lighthouses in the US. Visitors to Ocracoke can also have the novelty of momentarily stepping into the UK. Do so by going to the British Cemetery that is leased in perpetuity to the British Commonwealth, so that their men buried there (WWII) are technically on home soil. Meanwhile strolling along the Springer Point Trail gives a look at the island’s natural side to a point where famed pirate, Blackbeard, is said to have used as an anchorage.
The entire island around the town is part of the Cape Hatteras Nat’l Seashore. This allows much of Ocracoke to be explored and enjoyed in its natural state, particularly its beautiful beaches. At the end of the day, there are plenty of seafood restaurants to grab a fresh-caught dinner. Afterwards there are a handful of walkable bars to catch live music. Ocracoke is a great little tourist town to get away from it all!
Travel Tips for Ocracoke:
- Hotel and B&B prices run high on Ocracoke, so plan accordingly. For those who don’t mind roughing it, Ocracoke has some excellent campgrounds.
- While you can experience much of Ocracoke in a single day, this is a great place to come to unwind and linger.
- Consider shoulder seasons of late Spring and early Fall, but understand the latter coincides with the possibility of hurricane threats.
- Plan your trip to Ocracoke based on the ferry times, particularly when coming from the South (Cedar Island) as that 2.15-hour ferry trip only runs four times each day and you must be there 30 minutes in advance. If coming from the North (Hatteras) simply show up for the frequent trips.
🥇 Deadwood, SD
This former gold rush town from the late 1800s has become an archetypal US tourist town in the early 2000s. The wild west feeling from Deadwood’s heyday is successfully carried out throughout the town today.
Set within the Blackhills of South Dakota, the entire town of Deadwood is designated as a National Historic Landmark for its 19th-century frontier architecture that remains. Stagecoach tours and panning for gold are just two touristic pursuits from the period to give visitors some sense of Deadwood’s yesteryear. But it’s the numerous reenactments that really pull it together.
Deadwood was once home to such notorious wild west characters as Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. It’s also their final resting place, which can be visited in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. These legends live on across the streets of Deadwood, with multiple shootouts and gunfights happening each day during the summer season. In addition to being fun performances, these reenactments also provide a wealth of the town’s history. And they’re free!
One such performance is held at the bar where Wild Bill was shot and killed while playing poker. The No. 10 Saloon acts as center stage for the spectacle. Speaking of saloons, Deadwood isn’t just a historic town, it’s a party town. Dozens of bars, casinos, and a new outdoor concert stage drawing national acts all add to Deadwood’s wild side.
Yes, Deadwood is hokey, over-the-top, touristic, and even a bit hedonistic. Yet we found it to be an exemplary American tourist town for a US road trip.
Travel Tips for Deadwood:
- Given there’s 5 NPS sites within a 90-minute drive, Deadwood can make a great base for visiting these nearby parks: Mount Rushmore NM (1:10 hr Drive), Devil’s Tower NM (1:15 hr drive), Wind Cave NP (1:30 hr drive), Jewel Cave NM (1:30 hr drive), and Badlands NP (1:30 drive).
- Upon arriving, get the schedule for the times and locations of the daily (Mon-Sat) shootout reenactments so you can plan accordingly.
- Although we found Deadwood to be lots of fun, hardened travelers who get easily turned-off by touristic experiences may want to avoid it.
🥾 Best Hikes:
We love to hike and the US sure provides some fantastic trekking opportunities. Across 408 miles, these were our favorite trails.
🏆 Honorable Mentions
Devil’s Hall Trail – Guadalupe NP, TX, 4.2m (6.8km), out & back
After traversing though the mountainous desert landscape, this trail merges into a boulder-strewn dried riverbed making for an interesting rocky hike with a few scrambles. The payoff is reaching the narrow ravine known as Devil’s Hall where tall vertical walls are a mere 15 feet (4.5 m) apart and extend 200 feet long.
Notch Trail – Badlands NP, SD, 1.5m (2.4km), out & back
Any trail with a log ladder involved gets our vote as a favorite. This short but sweet trail through otherworldly landscapes was a very satisfying way to experience the South Dakota’s badlands.
Natural Entrance Trail + Big Room Route – Carlsbad Caverns NP, NM, 2.5-mile (4km), one-way
It’s an indescribable feeling trekking the steep path from the hot, dry desert air right down into the cool, damp cave. This fun trek takes you 754 feet (230 meters) underground and proceeds through a myriad of incredible cave formations.
Alkali Flat Trail – White Sand Dunes NP, NM, 5 mile (8km), loop
Across expanses of white sand dunes, this trail is simply designated with widely spaced-out markers. Tracking down each post provides for such a unique sandy trekking adventure that we found best attempted barefoot.
Trail of the Cedars + Avalanche Lake Trail – Glacier NP, MT, 5.9m (9.5km), out & back
Composed of two interconnecting trails, this hike begins in an old growth cedar forest with 500-year-old trees looming 100 feet (30 meters). After passing a lush canyon carved by a rushing creek and meandering below towering mountaintops, Avalanche Lake provides a stunning payoff. The lake is a visual feast of clear waters surrounded by soaring cliffs draped in rushing waters from snowmelt, made only more spectacular by grizzly sightings!
🥉 Devil’s Garden Trail – Arches NP, UT, ~6m (9.7km), out & back
Within one very fun trail, we were able to take in 10 of the park’s namesake arches! This premiere hike in Arches NP is most often used to see the wide Landscape Arch. But the trail becomes much more technical beyond that one-mile mark where that arch is located. After a tough rock scramble, we were met with a vertigo-inducing stretch where hikers face precipitous drop-offs either side.
Those who make it across are rewarded by the Double O Arch. It was beautiful. But we found the journey getting there to be equally satisfying.
Tips for Devil’s Garden Trail:
- Go as early as humanly possible to beat the heat and the crowds.
- Do not attempt if you have a fear of heights and/or unsure footing.
- If the trail seems beyond your comfort level, don’t be afraid to turn around.
🥉 Tower Arch Trail – Arches NP, UT, 2.6m (4.2km), out & back
We enjoyed two separate trails in Arches NP for different reasons. Choosing our favorite between them was difficult, so we’re just calling it a tie for bronze here.
In a national park with an increasingly crowded reputation, we marveled that no one else was hiking this awesome trail. It begins with harrowing scramble up a steep cliff that continues through the desert landscape.
While many of the well-trodden trails within Arches NP park tend to get notoriously heavily trafficked, we were able to enjoy the enormous Tower Arch all to ourselves; just the 3 of us in nature and solitude.
Tips for Tower Arch Trail:
- Stay in Green River and use the alternate entrance, taking the dirt road through the Salt Valley on the North side of the park.
- Once you get past the technical rock scramble at the beginning of the trail, the trail flattens out and gets much easier.
🥈 Upper Geyser Basin + Biscuit Basin + Mystic Falls Loop – Yellowstone NP, WY, 8m (11.3km), loop
There are hundreds of trails meandering throughout Yellowstone. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to connect one another to form our own epic routes. This was our favorite of the bunch, giving an awesome sample of the famed park’s best features.
Starting and ending with Old Faithful’s reliable performance, there was so much to experience in between. The trail continues with a wander through the Upper Geyser Basin, which holds the highest concentration of geysers in the entire world. An elevated boardwalk meanders across this steaming terrain that’s filled with hissing fumaroles (steam vents), bubbling mud pits, and colorful hot springs.
Some geysers like Grand, the tallest predictable geyser in the world, provides a pleasant break to wait in anticipation for the geyser to eventually do its thing. Further along the route, it was the unexpected eruptions of unpredictable geysers that was such a thrilling surprise to take in. As the boardwalk transitions to single track, Old Faithful’s crowds thinned out to the extent that there were more bison than other hikers on this stunning trail. Although we enjoy technical trails, this easy and mostly flat hike was a nice reprieve to simply enjoy the incredible surroundings.
After taking in more geothermal wonders at the scenic Biscuit Basin, the trek to Mystic Falls offers even more of Yellowstone’s natural beauty. We nervously reveled in the possibility of seeing grizzlies, as sections of the trail were closed due to recent bear activity. We only saw a few deer and continued on a giant loop back to Old Faithful that took us across all new terrain on the return for fresh perspectives, before catching yet another eruption to conclude this fantastic circuit.
We found it spectacular how one single hike could manage to include multiple geysers, abundant wildlife, a rushing waterfall, lush forests, serene meadows, and beautiful mountain vistas!
Tips for Upper Geyser + Biscuit Basin loop trail
- Check the times for eruption predictions for Grand Geyser and Riverside Geyser and try to time your hike accordingly.
- Since the eruption windows can be 2+ hours, pack a lunch and eat while waiting.
- In one of the busiest areas of the park, this is a great route to escape the crowds.
🥇 Chesler Park Loop – Canyonlands NP, UT, 12m (19.3km), loop
This was the toughest hike we attempted all trip and it turned out to be our favorite. In fact, we’d go as far to say it was one of the best hikes we’ve completed anywhere in the world!
This loop trail gives such an awesome sample of Canyonland’s varied landscapes. Our 12-mile trek took us across the sandstone deep into a hot craggy desert that still managed to maintain sweeping views of cool snowcap mountains overhead.
After entering the meadow known as Chesler Park, huge rock formations sprout up from the ground with a towering presence that made us feel small. Following the cairns (rock piles that act as trail markers) sent us on a fun navigational challenge that had us carefully sliding down the smooth sandstone and climbing up the next sheer slope.
Yet the highlight of this amazing trail was the section called “The Joint.” That’s where you squeeze through tight slot canyons, some just a few feet wide. Traversing along the bottom of these narrow, tall canyons provided such an incredible experience while also giving a much welcomed reprieve from the otherwise unrelenting sun.
The Chesler Park Loop is an awesome, world-class day hike.
Tips for Chesler Park Loop Trail
- Check the weather and avoid extreme heat in the summer months.
- Pack plenty of water. We’d suggest a bare minimum of 3 liters per person. (We consumed more).
- Trek the loop counter clockwise to lessen sun exposure and to save the Joint section for after the halfway point.
🏨 Best Hotels & Accommodation
We tend to spend little time in the places we stay, treating them more as a somewhere to lay our heads at the end of a long day roaming. So to stretch our travel budget further, we typically just book the most economical places we can find that seem clean and have decent reviews. In the US, where accommodation cost tends to run very high (respective to other countries), this usually results in getting a one or two-star motel that’s unremarkable but fits our needs.
We prefer to keep our accommodation costs low in order to better allocate budget towards activities, dining, and more travel. That said, we happily splurge in two instances:
(1) out of necessity for the area, or
(2) when a great place is negligibly higher than the cheaper alternatives.
We prefer staying in independently owned properties. Yet we also regularly book cheap chain motels when the price is right. On this trip we stayed in more Super 8s than I care to admit. Okay, it was 10, and they varied greatly in quality.
Traveling in our home country also gave us the chance to stay with friends and family along the way. When being on the road for a while, it always feels so nice to connect with friends and family along the way. We did so at 8 places throughout this road trip. (Thank you to Linda, Michelle & Neil, Abbie & Trevor, Joe & Stephanie, Penny & Warren, Ben & Christi, Japheth & Ariane, and Michael & Kristy!)
Yet of the 48 paid accommodations we stayed at, the following were our favorites during this road trip.
🏆 Honorable Mention
Blackfoot River Valley Lodging (Airbnb), Missoula, MT, $56
A longer stay at an Airbnb in Montana seemed like a great idea to us …and a lot of US travelers. Many Airbnbs in Big Sky country were priced sky high, if not fully booked. Thankfully Mary’s basement apartment on the outskirts of Missoula offered a wonderful yet affordable refuge that was made complete by her friendly horse, Sonomah, who greeted us each time we returned from a day of fun in western Montana.
🥉 Celebrity Hotel, Deadwood, SD, $68
The town of Deadwood wasn’t much on our radar until we noticed this boutique hotel offering a discounted rate we couldn’t refuse. The Celebrity Hotel proved to be equal parts luxury and quirky. Ultimately it made for a great place to park the car and rest our weary travel bones for a few days in this walkable tourist town.
Each of the well-appointed Victorian rooms carries a different theme, spanning from John Wayne to Marilynn Monroe. We happened to get the Elvis room. But this was no heartbreak hotel.
We couldn’t help falling in love with the 2nd-floor patio overlooking Deadwood’s Main Street. The location is exactly where the daily shootout reenactment occurs. Instead of enduring the thick crowd gathering on the street, the Celebrity Hotel’s terrace offered a private viewing area to watch the antics play out down below. And once the sun and baby both turned down, the elevated patio was an awesome retreat for excellent people-watching while sipping adult beverages.
Meanwhile, the hotel’s casino is disguised as a family-friendly movie memorabilia museum. Slot machines are interwoven with movie props such as the Terminator’s leather jacket and James Bond’s suit. We’re not much for gambling but decided to feed a dollar into a machine. Somehow that one dollar turned into 37. Perhaps Elvis was our good luck charm. An actual lock of his hair was on display near our winning machine.
Overall, this place felt a little weird. And we loved that. After staying in a string of budget motels, Deadwood’s Celebrity hotel was a fantastic luxury-for-less bargain to unwind in.
🥈 Malaga Inn, Mobile, AL, $64
When we noticed this gorgeous historic boutique hotel located within walking distance to Mobile’s downtown bars and restaurants, we couldn’t resist the deal we found here. The twin townhouses built in 1862 provided a very atmospheric stay.
Each of the 39 rooms at the Malaga Inn offers a different experience. We loved our historic room with period furnishings and enormous balcony. Oddly, there was no door to the veranda. It took us a few minutes to figure out that you lift up an entire windowpane to access the picturesque balcony with rocking chairs that overlook oak trees draped with leftover Mardi Gras beads.
After an evening stroll across Mobile’s downtown historic district, the balcony provided us with a pleasant refuge to enjoy some beverages after the baby went to sleep. Yet the baby also seemed to have a fun night.
What we didn’t know about the Malaga Inn was that it’s haunted. I’m still not sure what to think but something was thoroughly entertaining Harper all through the night, as she seemingly interacted, played, and giggled. Meanwhile the sound of footsteps persisted and our white noise device turned on by itself.
A friendly ghost perhaps? I don’t know. But ultimately this all made the Malaga Inn our most memorable stay of the trip!
🥇 Swiftcurrent, Glacier National Park, MT, $130
The costliest place we stayed during this entire trip proved worth the splurge. It wasn’t a luxury resort, nor anywhere glamorous at all. It was a homely cabin. And it was great. There’s just something special about staying in a national park.
In this case it was a 1930s-era motel and cabins, which is on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places, listed as the Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District. It was built to offer an inexpensive, informal alternative to Glacier’s hotels. Nearly a century later, it still fits that bill.
For us, the best aspect of staying at the Swiftcurrent Cabins was its location in the Many Glaciers area of the national park. It was such a huge perk to simply hit the trails directly from our cabin, rather than loading up the car for the umpteenth time for a lengthy drive to a trailhead.
The cabin itself was fantastic too – spacious, super comfy, cozy, and well-adorned. We certainly weren’t roughing it. Swiftwater does offer more rustic cabins, with shared bathroom facilities. That’s actually what we had booked. But upon checking in we were pleasantly surprised to be assigned one of their brand new updated cabins. Arriving to Swiftwater on the opening day of their summer season, we believe we may have been the first guests to break it in. Ahh, that new cabin smell!
It was nice to have a little eating area in our cabin since restaurant restrictions in the park were doing take-out only. The onsite Nell’s Restaurant was a great place to grab some burgers to eat back in our humble abode, surrounded by tall pines blowing in the wind. Yet we also really enjoyed being able to relax with a few brews while sitting at the broad windows of the fancier (read: way more expensive) Many Glaciers Lodge next door, all while moose casually stroll by the lakeside.
🍽️ Best Regional Cuisines
Whenever traveling the world, we always make it a point to seek out the local specialties in each country. Yet we’ve found that’s possible right here in the US too, with so much delicious regional cuisine found throughout the country.
We picnicked a lot during this road trip, so it was fun discovering regional finds varying from each supermarket, state to state. Since fast food was inevitable throughout the journey, we also enjoyed being introduced to so many regional chains that were completely new-to-us.
In Texas we find out about Buc-ees’ brisket sandwiches and Whataburger’s namesake. In New Mexico, we loved the green chile-laden fare at both Twisters and Blakes. Meanwhile, Taco John’s became a go-to in Wyoming and into the Midwest. That brought us to Culver’s in Wisconsin for some fried cheese curds to accompany our burgers. We then rejoiced in getting reunited with Skyline Chili in Ohio before moving onto Primanti Bros’ legendary sandwiches in Pennsylvania. It was all a wonderful workout for our gut that left us thankful we did plenty of hiking in between these guilty pleasures.
Although these quick eats were tasty treats, the most delicious moments of this three-month odyssey tended not to come from a drive-thru window. Instead, these were our favorite foodie finds along the way…
🏆 Honorable Mentions
Is this actually a local cuisine? Or is it more of a way of life and source of pride? Whatever the case, we’re all for it and happy to eat all the cheese, from humble fare like squeaky fried cheese curds and mac & cheese to fine aged Gruyère. Exploring the cheese-centric town of Monroe, Wisconsin that taught us much about the state’s love for cheese, as we made our way from the National Historic Cheesemaking Center to then sample some slices at Baumgartner’s Cheese Tavern, which is also the state’s oldest cheese store.
A WI cheese highlight was definitely the Roth Cheese Grand Cru Surchoix, the only US winner of the World Championship Cheese Contest during the past two decades. And it was our favorite too! At his Alp & Dell cheese store, the cheesemaker himself, Tony, was there to introduce his bold cheese, aged 9-months, that may now be the best cheese we’ve ever had.
Chesapeake Bay Seafood
Whenever visiting the waters that form the largest estuary in the US, we must get a good sampling of the seafood that has helped to define the cuisine of coastal Maryland and Virginia. Chesapeake oysters are particularly regarded for their quality and we’ll gladly slurp them up from the half shell!
Perhaps even more notable is the Chesapeake blue crab, as the Chesapeake Bay has held the largest harvest of blue crab for over a century. Once they molt and rid their shell, these crabs often find their way onto restaurants plates as soft shell crab. Typically battered and fried, those blue crabs become a crispy and succulent treat to savor.
The only trouble around Chesapeake Bay restaurants is deciding between the soft shell crabs or the lump crab cakes this region is also highly regarded for. That was the dilemma we faced at Captain Chuck-a-Mucks, a quaint wharfy eatery in the tiny coastal village of Rescue, VA. Our verdict: you can’t really go wrong either way. Meanwhile, fresh fish and seafood boils with Old Bay seasoning only complicate menu decisions throughout the region. But we’ll still throw our weight towards crab and oysters whenever eating our way across Chesapeake Bay!
Among those who’ve spent time eating the beautiful dishes found throughout Mexico, Tex-Mex cuisine is sometimes viewed as an inauthentic take on Mexican cuisine. And while Tex-Mex borrows from Mexican flavors and traditions, Tex-Mex is really its own thing. Of course it’s not authentically Mexican, but it is authentically Tex-Mex. And it’s delicious!
Tex-Mex often incorporates Americanized ingredients that we rarely see in the regional cuisine south of the border. The use of flour tortillas, neon yellow shredded cheese, sour cream and canned black beans are just a few examples. As we traveled throughout the southwest, we couldn’t get enough of the breakfast burritos that became a staple of our morning diet for weeks. Yet a standout dish would have to go to the enchiladas verdes with fluffy fresh flour tortillas we tore into at the Blanco Café in San Antonio!
🥉 New Mexican Cuisine
For us, New Mexican cuisine is often a yummy extension of the many aspects we enjoy about Tex-Mex cuisine. Yet there’s one addition that helps define New Mexican cuisine, that’s asked in the form of a question nearly every time we dined out in the state: Red or green?
For the uninitiated, the question is in reference to the state’s delicious chiles. New Mexico is obsessed with them and now we are too. Much of New Mexico’s cuisine comes smothered in a green/red chile sauce or with chiles on it, most notably the NM Hatch chile.
Even American staples like burgers and pizza get the chile treatment across the state. So much so that national chains like McDonalds and Dominos have even adopted it, offering green chile cheeseburgers and green chile as a pizza topping. Yet we were steered to New Mexico chain, Blake’s Lotaburger, for what National Geographic listed as the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger in the World.” It’s the best burger we’ve had from a fast-food chain on this trip. Yet we’d be curious to go down New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail (yes, it’s a thing) to try other local joints.
Meanwhile the green chile we had at a local pizza place was complimented so nicely with another New Mexican staple, piñon (pine nut), also a traditional food of Native Americans in the region. The crunchy, buttery pine seeds countered the chile’s heat so nicely. I’ll be dreaming about that pie until we get back to New Mexico.
There’s also a delicious green chile stew found throughout New Mexico that’s a tasty way to warm up on a cool evening. Then there’s all the green chile sauce covering enchiladas, burritos and tacos which is usually then smothered with cheddar and/or jack cheese. This is certainly not Mexican, nor even Tex-Mex. The latter uses tomatillo in their verde sauces. But the use of green chile here makes it distinctively New Mexican. And we couldn’t get enough of it!
🥈 Southern BBQ
We’ve always believed barbecue is among the best foods local to the US. This trip only solidified our stance on that as we devoured smoked brisket in Texas and later moved to pulled pork with vinegar sauce in North Carolina, with sides ranging from baked beans and potato salad to collard greens and mac & cheese.
Yet perhaps our most interesting barbecue was on the tail-end of our trip to try some South Carolina barbecue. That led us on a scenic drive in rural SC to find a place that some drive several hours to get to. It’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays and we just-so-happened to be passing by on the weekend to finally try this institution. It turned out to be well worth the detour off of I-95 and the wait in line at its quaint country location, just to get our hands on their coveted whole hog barbecue.
This food highlight was at Sweatman’s Barbeque, a fantastic foray into SC-style BBQ. Their pulled pork was as moist and tender as ever, served with a tangy mustard bbq sauce that helps to define South Carolina barbecue. A new-to-us food that was served with our meal was the South Carolina barbeque hash, a saucy mixture of pork served over a bed of rice. Interesting. But that pulled pork steals the alongside the friendly southern atmosphere.
🥇 Cajun Cuisine
When eating this rustic cuisine down in the swamps of Southern Louisiana, we feel its soul in bellies. Seemingly modest fare is prepared bursting with flavor from signature Cajun spices, following recipes that date back centuries when the Cajun-Acadians arrived at these bayous.
What was really surprising was the breadth of dishes – and it was all delicious! One standout was boudin (spicy pork sausage) and boudin balls, in which the said sausage is battered and fried. Seafood gumbo dazzled our tastebuds. Fried frog legs were a fun novelty.
Yet perhaps one of my favorites was a simple pleasure known as rice and gravy, which is a gravy based on pan drippings that are deglazed and simmered with extra seasonings, then served over rice. My favorite version of this was a small shack known as Glenda’s, in which her stuffed turkey wings were filled with this spicy buttery gravy that was ultimately soaked up by all the rice it sat upon.
But of course, no culinary visit to Cajun country is complete without crawfish. With the town of Breaux Bridge being known as the crawfish capital of the world, there was no shortage of these crustaceans during our visit there. There are lots of different ways to cook these “mud bugs,” but we were told a crawfish boil is the way to go when they’re fresh, served up from a heavily seasoned pot of water, along with corn and potatoes. It takes a bit of work to crack open several pounds but it’s a fun experience that goes great with a cold beer.
Yet when in the crawfish capital, we were also able to try fried crawfish, crawfish pies, crawfish kickers, and crawfish boudin balls. The lightly seasoned grilled crawfish on our po’ boy was another hit. But it was a crawfish bisque that was among our favorites. And I’m still dreaming about the crawfish étouffée, which simmers the shellfish in a delicious roux over rice that really comes together with a few dashes of hot sauce. Whatever the preparation – it’s all fantastic!
🍺 Best Breweries
We always love visiting local breweries during our world travels. This holds particularly true for us now here in the US, where craft breweries tend to be a family-friendly place to grab a drink. After a day of adventure, we love nothing more than finding a local brewpub to kick back and enjoy some regional suds. In fact, we often choose hotel locations based on walking proximity to nearby breweries.
Yet our preference in brewpubs has evolved over the years. In the past, we’d favor establishments that brew the best beer, period. Nowadays we look for places that brew great beer, but also have a fun or interesting atmosphere that gives us a good taste of the local vibes.
We’ve grown bored of the standard industrial brewery format that’s often replicated worldwide. For us, a delicious beer tastes even better when paired with a scenic outdoor setting. Our favorite brewery finds reflect that. After visiting a total of 49 different craft breweries during this trip, here are our top picks!
🏆 Honorable Mentions
Bayou Teche Brewing, Arnaudville, LA – This out-of-the-way brewery, deep in the Louisiana bayou, brews beers such as their LA 31 Biere Pale Ale that is purposely formulated to complement Cajun food. It’s also delicious on their outdoor patio shaded by oak trees.
AL. Ringling Brewing Co., Baraboo, WI – Located in a gorgeous historic (1905) red stone mansion once home of legendary circus showman AL. Ringling, this brewery is circus-themed, pours the original Ringling Family beer recipe (among other tasty taps), and curiously serves delicious Paraguayan cuisine.
Brew Lab 101, Rio Rancho, NM – As fans of the Albuquerque-based series Breaking Bad, it was fun to visit this chemistry-themed brewery that serves yummy beers like their “Walter Wit” in sampler glasses shaped like beakers.
Map Brewing, Bozeman, MT – How could we not instantly fall in love with a brewery with a slogan stating: “Because every great adventure starts with a map.” Their award-winning beers and stellar views of the Montana mountains add up to one awesome brewery!
🥉 Harpers Ferry Brewing, Purcellville VA
We love a brew with a view. And Harpers Ferry Brewing delivers! Their brewpub is situated perched atop the scenic banks of the Potomac River with fantastic Blue Ridge Mountain views. If you squint, you can even faintly see the namesake Harpers Ferry a mile or so upriver.
After a day of rafting or hiking nearby trails, this is the perfect place to unwind. We could have easily relaxed away the entire afternoon sipping their tasty brews, moving between the elevated decks and the broad-backed chairs on the sloping hillside. Perhaps that would give us time to make our way through the 15+ taps the friendly bartenders are pouring.
🥈 Schells Brewery, New Ulm, WI
The August-Schell Brewery is not one of the thousands of trendy craft breweries that have sprung up in the US during the past decade or so. This is a historic brewery that’s been around since 1860!
In fact, it’s the second oldest family-owned brewery in the US today (only Yuengling is older). We really enjoyed both the German and American style beers they serve here. Yet what really stands out is the picturesque grounds that feels like a small slice of Bavaria situated right here in the US.
Being the only surviving example of New Ulm’s seven early breweries, Schells Brewery has made its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. It’s amazing how the industrial buildings, mansion, and beer gardens are still intact from two centuries prior! Today, peacocks freely roam around the historic setting, surrounded by forest. The expansive grounds make for a very atmospheric place to sip their fresh beers, brewed on site.
🥇 Highlander Beer – Missoula Brewing Company, Missoula MT
It’s a good thing we don’t live in Missoula. Because if we did, I’d probably want to stop by this welcoming tap house every day. Highlander Beer embodies everything we enjoy about visiting local breweries.
With a huge outdoor space, we absolutely loved being able to sit right up against the Grant Creek. Not only did the rushing water provide a natural soundtrack as we sipped, it was fun to be able to dip our toes in the stream on a warm summer day.
This brewery plays up its Montana roots. Although it’s a relatively new endeavor (est. 2015), they have revived the Highlander Beer brand from Missoula’s first brewery (1890), which had closed in 1964.
Each beer we tried shined as bright as the sun beaming off the surrounding mountains. At first sip it was clear that the beer is the star of this operation. So with a seemingly simple food menu of pizza slices, we were pleasantly surprised at just how wonderful it was, accompanied by generous greek salads. With quick and friendly service delivered right to our creekside set-up, we couldn’t ask for more out here in our Montana beer heaven.
✈️ So Where to Next? 🔜
We’ve had a great time exploring the US and are so thankful we’ve had the chance to do so. But our desire to get back to roaming around the world is growing strong.
In fact, we even started dreaming and plotting a pretty epic multi-country, three-continent trip this Fall. Unfortunately, those wishfully laid plans have since been wiped off the table. I’m sure many of you can relate as travel ideas have been squashed or postponed during these past two years. That said, we are still hopeful to take a less ambitious international trip before this year is over.
In the meantime, we have been slowing down in Florida once again. We have some family obligations that have sprung up down here we’re currently tending to. Between those responsibilities and the uncertainty of the pandemic, it’s been a bit difficult for us to roam around anywhere right now.
That said, after being stationary nearly for two months, we’re now just about ready to hit the road again for a quick local trip. We’ll be heading back to our favorite Florida travel destination, which we always find so enjoyable to visit in September – the absolute peak of its low season.
Then we’ve made some tentative plans to a familiar international destination. After this summer sprint across the US, we’re hopeful to take a more stationary trip to introduce Harper to one of our favorite cities to slow down in. We’ll be returning to a city that has sometimes acted as a second home for us in recent years. It’s a place we’ve often use to regroup, enjoy the wonderful culture & cuisine, and plan upcoming travel. We miss this particularly city (and this country) dearly and are so looking forward to returning.
It’s an exciting thought that we may even be packing our bags and putting our passports to use next month! But at the moment, we’re still in wait-and-see mode. We haven’t booked our flights yet. But we’re close.
Until our next roaming, we thank you for following along our summer road trip across the US. We’re hoping to find time to draft a few guides about some of our favorite spots mentioned in this blog post. So please let us know if there are any places you want more info about in the meantime.
Until then, we wish you all happy and healthy days ahead in a world where roaming becomes safer and easier!
-John, Heather & Harper