This summer, we took a 10-day road trip through the Western United States, hitting Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and briefly passing through Utah and Nevada on the way back to San Francisco. This part of the country is famously beautiful, characterized by lush green alpine landscapes and snow-capped peaks, winding rivers, and countless small towns dripping with old western charm. We rode horses and ate beef, as one must, and went on some of the most scenic hikes anywhere.
Our itinerary included three out of the five most conservative states in America — Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho — and I now know what it feels like to experience culture shock in my own country. People live in isolated rural areas hours away from the nearest grocery store. Trump 2020 banners hang proudly in front of houses and wave in windy fields and farmland. At local businesses and restaurants, taxidermy animal mounts outnumber patrons. A waitress showed us a photo of herself at four months old next to a bear her father had just killed. Locals openly carry guns at family-friendly tourist destinations, and, I assume, elsewhere.
At a restaurant in small-town Idaho, we had a lengthy conversation with a man about his stockpile of 100 guns, the 300+ gophers he killed with his 5-year-old grandson on a recent hunt, and his belief that the standoff between liberals and conservatives will end in a bloody civil war. While his convictions differ significantly from mine (I’ve lived in liberal cities my entire life and have never handled a gun), it was eye-opening to hear an opposite perspective on familiar issues. It hits different when you are talking to a flesh-and-blood human rather than working yourself up over the contents of a Facebook comment.
We took our road trip at the height of summer, and I highly recommend anyone considering a visit to this region to travel during this time. In Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, sunsets are well after 9 pm each day. You’ll be able to do and see so much more compared to the rest of the year.
In this guide, I divulge essential tips and tricks for a successful road trip, share a 10-day itinerary, and outline detailed guides to every destination we visited, including where to stay and places to eat. I hope you find it useful when planning your own road trip through the Western United States!
Table of Contents
- Road Trip Tips & Tricks
- 10-Day Western US Road Trip Itinerary
- Destination Guide
Big Sky, Montana
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Las Vegas, Nevada
Western United States Road Trip: Tips & Tricks
Consider Your Accommodation Budget
We mainly used Booking.com to book low-cost motels located on our route. However, because we road-tripped in the summer and stayed near well-known US national parks, these cost about $100 an average each night — not the cheapest option for accommodation.
Alternatively, you can rent an RV or campervan and have your shelter conveniently on wheels. Outdoorsy has a diverse selection of road trip vehicles ranging from no-frills campervans to glamping-ready RVs that fit any budget. If we could redo our trip, I would have gone this route.
If you are on a tighter budget, you can do a mix of motels and camping, or even camp the whole time. Find and book campsites wherever you are with ReserveAmerica or Campendium (roughly $30 a night) or use an app like Free Roam to locate Forest Service and BLM land where you can legally boondock.
Bring Snacks & Lots of Water!
We brought a cooler from home to use during our trip and bought groceries along the away. Doing this will spare you both money and time during long stretches of driving and help you eat a little healthier.
For water, we purchased a few 1.5-liter bottles and refilled them at gas stations throughout our trip.
Aim for a Good Balance of Driving vs. Sightseeing
I’ve made the common road trip mistake of trying to pack too many stops into a short time period. This time around, we tried to keep driving at a minimum outside of a few necessary travel days. A good rule of thumb is to aim for under four hours of driving per day so you have time to enjoy your destination. It’s always better to see fewer destinations more completely than more destinations incompletely.
When planning your itinerary, keep in mind that the estimated driving time on Google Maps is often longer when you factor in bathroom and restaurant stops.
Get the AllTrails App
If you plan on hiking — a must on any Western US road trip — AllTrails is a great resource for locating the best trails in your area. The app provides route maps, difficulty levels, trail photos, user reviews, and more.
Buy a National Park Pass
If you plan to go to more than one national park, opt to buy an annual pass for $80 instead of individual day passes at $35 a pop. The pass also gets you free parking at all federal recreation areas.
Download Offline Maps & Media
The United States is an enormous country, and there are large swaths of sparsely populated land without cell service. Download offline maps on Google to ensure that you will never get lost and your favorite playlists and podcasts on Spotify to stay entertained.
Our 10-Day Western United States Road Trip Itinerary
Here is our exact day-to-day road trip itinerary from San Francisco:
Day 1: Drive from San Francisco to Stanley, Idaho (~12 hours)
Day 2: Stanley, Idaho
Day 3: Salmon, Idaho & Missoula, Montana
Day 4: Drive from Missoula to Big Sky, Montana
Day 5: Big Sky, Montana & Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Day 6: Livingston, Montana
Day 7: Beartooth Highway and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Day 8: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Day 9: Escalante, Utah
Day 10: Las Vegas, Nevada
Day 11: Drive from Las Vegas to San Francisco (~8 hours)
We had a rough plan in place prior to our trip but gave ourselves the leeway to make unexpected stops the way — hence why we hit Yellowstone twice! In the next section, I’ll dive deeper into what we did in each destination.
Western United States Road Trip Destination Guide
Stanley, population ~60, is located in Central Idaho, about 130 miles from Boise. With rustic log cabins, winding rivers, and rolling green meadows — all framed by the snow-capped the Sawtooth mountains — the town looks straight out of a fairy tale. Minus the ostentatious Trump 2020 banners hanging on some of the houses, of course.
In all seriousness, I had no idea Idaho was this beautiful. The entire state is a paradise for anyone who loves hiking, swimming, or anything outdoorsy. Here’s what we did in Stanley:
- Hike! We did the Iron Creek trail to Alpine Lake, a moderate seven miles out-and-back. You can go further to Sawtooth Lake, which adds an additional three miles. The hike is lovely, with wildflowers and sweeping views of Sawtooth’s jagged peaks along the way. The AllTrails app can guide you to even more hiking options in the Stanley area.
- Swim, raft, SUP, boat, or fish. It seems like you are never far from a river, creek, or lake in Idaho. Stanley is located on the banks of the Salmon River, and Redfish Lake is right nearby in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. There are numerous shops that offer equipment rentals and guided rafting adventures in the area—just give it a quick Google search once you arrive.
- Horseback riding. Mystic Saddle Ranch offers trail ride in the Sawtooth mountains and near Redfish Lake.
Stay: The Sawtooth Hotel is a charming and relatively budget-friendly option.
Eat: Sawtooth Luce’s serves up cold local beer and a mean Idaho Kobe beef burger, and we had a delicious breakfast at Stanley Baking Company. The oatmeal pancake is a must-try!
Salmon, two hours north of Stanley, is another small Idaho town of 3000+ residents.
Our main activity was a visit to the Goldbug Hot Springs in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The springs, located at the top of a mountain, are reachable via a relatively short but steep hike. Once you complete the hike, you are rewarded with six warm pools, a waterfall, and sweeping views of the scenery below.
Stay: Super 8 by Wyndham Salmon.
Eat: We ate at Last Chance Pizza & Pasta in town. The artichoke spinach dip and conversation with local patrons were to die for.
Ponderosa Pies is a food truck in Salmon that I wish we tried (they were sold out when we went). Their pizza is cooked in a wood fire oven installed directly in the truck.
After Salmon, we drove to Missoula, a funky college town of 75,000 that we loved.
We arrived in the evening, so we watched the sunset at Higgins Street Bridge, took a walk downtown, and had a few drinks at The Rhino Bar, a proper dive with yummy beers on tap (this part of the country has consistently incredible beer). Though Missoula is pretty small, the nightlife is young and lively and there were a lot of people out and about. We had many “hmmm….should we move here?” moments during our visit.
On Saturday morning, we checked out the city’s weekly farmer’s market, which we read is a must during any visit to Missoula. It was cute, and we picked up some locally grown cherries and bison pepperoni for the road.
Stay: Econo Lodge
Eat: The Hob Nob on South Higgins Street has good coffee and very filling, all-American brunch fare — all at a very reasonable price.
Detour to Garnet Ghost Town
On our way to Big Sky from Missoula, we stopped at Garnet Ghost Town, a former mining town active from the late 1800s to the end of World War I. The town was apparently poppin’ in its heyday and had no less than thirteen saloons. I guess when you live in the middle of nowhere you’ve got to entertain yourself somehow.
Because of its recent history and remote destination in the mountains, the buildings are well-preserved and worth a quick stop if you have time.
Big Sky, Montana
Big Sky, like so much of Montana, is absolutely stunning, with wide-open skies, winding rivers, and purple-hued mountains in the distance. Here are the top things to do in the area:
- Horseback riding. We went horseback riding in Big Sky with Jake’s Horses. The horses are gentle and well-trained, and in an hour-long ride you’ll cross creeks and scale a hill for sweeping views of the valley below. At $50 per person, it is 100% worth it!
- Take in the scenery on Taylor Fork Road. Our horseback riding guide told us to visit Taylor Fork Road if we were interested in seeing bears, moose, and other wildlife. While we didn’t see any animals (much to Lenza’s dismay), the views and photography opportunities made the trip worth it. If you are looking for a free place to camp, there are many options, but be warned that Taylor Fork is a dirt road where an off-roading vehicle is ideal. Bear spray is also a must.
- Hike. Beehive Basin Trail No. 40 is a popular 7.1-mile hike with spectacular views, meadows, creeks, waterfalls, and wildflowers. Use the AllTrails app to find even more options in the area that fit your hiking level.
- Visit Yellowstone National Park. Big Sky is a scenic hour away from the West entrance of Yellowstone. We ended up driving through the park en route to Livingston and visited a few iconic attractions along the way.
Livingston is a historical railroad and ranching town in Southwestern Montana, a short distance north from Yellowstone National Park. Downtown Livingston, pictured above, looks like an idyllic old western town, though vintage shops and cafes now line the street instead of saloons. Like everywhere we stopped in Montana, mountains frame the city in the distance.
The highlight of our Livingston visit was Pine Creek Lake, a 12-mile out-and-back trail to not one, not two, but three alpine lakes (AllTrails says this trail is nine miles, but don’t believe it). The scenery at Pine Creek Lake is stunning, but boy, do you have to work for it. The hike consists of six unforgiving miles straight uphill, covering 3653 feet of elevation.
I almost gave up and turned around halfway through but persisted with the encouragement of Lenza and a one-pound bag of Tillamook beef jerky. When we reached the first lake, I came close to tears because we had worked so hard for the beautiful views.
Be warned—this trail is not for the faint of heart, but you will be rewarded with some of the best views Montana has to offer. If you choose to take on the task, make sure to bring sunblock, plenty of water, and snacks to fuel you along the way.
Stay: Country Motor Inn is a budget motel in town. And it actually feels homey!
Eat: Tru North Cafe, owned by a recent Los Angeles transplant who came to Livingston on vacation and “accidentally bought a coffee shop,” serves a mindblowing Maple Mountain Cloud latte and blueberry jam breakfast sandwich. All around high-quality food in a rustic but modern wild west ambiance.
Detour to The Old Saloon in Emigrant, Montana
20 minutes away from Livingston is The Old Saloon, an old western restaurant and bar established in 1902. The menu is creative and modern, with local twists like elk meatballs and a bison burger. We really enjoyed our chicken fried steak and roasted pork tenderloin with rosemary and huckleberry demi-glace.
The venue is an experience in itself, with wild game taxidermy lining the walls, a sturdy wooden bar, and a vintage piano in the corner. There is a stage and ample seating outside where live shows are hosted in the summertime, and guests flock in from Bozeman, Livingston, and other nearby towns for the experience.
From Livingston, we took a two-hour drive to Red Lodge to enter Yellowstone via the 68-mile Beartooth Highway. This excursion — essentially a big loop back to where we started — took almost the entire day, but I really wanted to see what is considered one of the most beautiful and treacherous roads in America.
If you choose to explore Beartooth, I would budget at least 3-5 hours so you can get out and explore. There are lots of unique views and hiking opportunities along the way.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
So much has been said about Yellowstone already, so I’ll just share a list of attractions we visited in the park:
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Norris Geysers
- Grand Prismatic Springs
- Old Faithful
- Lamar Valley (to see all the bison!)
Detour to Ashton, Idaho
It is impossible to find a campsite in Yellowstone in the summertime. Jackson, the closest town, is crowded and expensive. So, we made the hour and a half drive to Ashton for affordable lodging, which we found at the Eagle Peak Lodge. In the morning, we had a gluttonous, all-American breakfast at Trails Inn Restaurant in town, which was just amazing. I’d never seen so many taxidermy animals in one place, and near the counter, a sign read “gun safety rule #1: carry one.” Seriously, look at this place:
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
We walked 7.7 miles around Jenny Lake, one of the many hiking trails in Grand Teton. It was flat and easy, with gorgeous views of the lake and the Tetons. Still, I’m not sure I would choose this trail again as it was crowded and there is a large portion that runs alongside a road.
Again, a quick search on AllTrails will present you with a list of trails within the park that you can choose from based on scenery, difficulty level, and user reviews. If I return to Teton in the future, I would try the more difficult Delta Lake vis Amphitheater Lake Trail.
After Teton, we embarked on the 8-hour drive towards Escalante, Utah, stopping at Salt Lake City to sleep overnight. In the morning, we arrived to these views:
Utah is home to Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, and other majestic but crowded national parks. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, on the other hand, is just as impressive and a true hidden gem.
Never heard of it? Me either. But fun fact: designated in 1996, Escalante was the last part of the continental U.S. to be mapped.
We spent our afternoon hiking to the Escalante Natural Bridge, which we had all to ourselves. It is an easy walk on soft sand with multiple river crossings. The trail is so gentle on the feet that we actually did it barefoot!
Eat: Circle D Eatery has yummy BBQ ribs and a buttered trout plate. Georgie’s Outdoor Mexican Cafe has a quesadilla bursting with melted cheese and generously portioned fish tacos.
Stay: We slept at our friend’s quaint and reasonably priced Airbnb, though there are also a few motel options in town.
Detour to Capitol Reef or Bryce Canyon National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is an hour and a half north of Escalante, and Bryce Canyon is about an hour South.
Bryce Canyon is obviously more famous — we’ve all seen photos of the park’s breathtaking Sunrise Point — but Capitol Reef received raving reviews from our friends and is far less crowded.
Whichever you decide, they are both great stops for your Western United States road trip!
Las Vegas, Nevada
I would write about Las Vegas, but really, what hasn’t been said about it already? The strip is obnoxious and ostentatious, crowded with symbols of American capitalism, casinos, wedding chapels, and strip clubs. Visitors range from overweight midwestern American families on their annual vacation to scantily-clad young girls ready for a night at the Marquee. People have a lot to say about Vegas, but in my opinion, you just gotta enjoy it for what it is: a tacky fabulous adult Disneyland.
Eat: Vegas is a food destination that I hope to explore more in the future. We had all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ at Ginseng BBQ on the strip and authentic, mouthwatering Shanxi beef noodle soup at Shang Artisan Noodle. I had an “I love America” moment at Shang’s because only here will you see a Hispanic person hand-pulling noodles in the Northern Chinese tradition. So good! If you are a Chinese food enthusiast and find yourself in Vegas, I highly recommend this place.
Stay: We loved our stay at Luxor, the Egyptian-themed, pyramid-shaped casino hotel located right on the strip. Obviously, there are many other options at all price ranges.
Few things are more romanticized than an all-American road trip, and I’m happy to report that they do indeed live up to the hype.
If you have any questions about this Western United States road trip guide, leave a comment below. I am always happy to help!