3 Best Socially Distanced Road Trips From Chicago

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If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that the pandemic has forced us to take more road trips and explore closer to home. Since buying our car six months ago, we’ve already put more mileage on it than the average person puts on their car in one year. While there are endless road trip itineraries you could follow from Chicago or elsewhere in the Midwest, here are the 3 best socially distanced road trips from Chicago if you have two weeks or more.

1. Road Trip West – National Parks

With more than 60 national parks across the country, the United States has one of the most extensive national park systems in the world. A national park road trip offers some of the best views and is one of the best socially distanced road trip ideas. While a road trip out west from Chicago includes some of the longest driving days, it also includes some of the most breathtaking views.

Grand Teton National Park

A sample itinerary for a socially distanced road trip out west includes the following national parks:

  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota)
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota)
  • Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming)
  • Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
  • Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

While the above itinerary can be accomplished in less than two weeks, the more time you have, the longer you can enjoy each site. Rather than taking the same route out west and back, I recommend road tripping through South Dakota on your way out and returning through North Dakota. That way, you can visit both the Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. For peak baggers, don’t forget to add Black Elk Peak to your itinerary. Not only is it the highest peak in South Dakota, but it’s also the highest peak in the United States east of the Rockies.

Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park

If you have more than two weeks, you can continue north from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park in Montana. Or, you can go south to Bryce Canyon National Park and Monument Valley Tribal Park in Utah. If you take the southern route, you can also stop by the Bonneville Salt Flats, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and continue on to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Note: There are over 50 degrees Fahrenheit across the United States if you count national monuments, national memorials, national battlegrounds, national historical sites, etc. However, there are only 62 sites that include “National Park” in its name.

2. Road Trip East – New England

One of the benefits of road tripping east from Chicago is shorter driving days. Compared to the west part of the United States, the east coast is much more compact. Here is a sample itinerary for a socially distanced road trip out east:

  • Upstate New York – Buffalo, Finger Lakes, Lake Placid
  • Vermont – Burlington, Stowe
  • New Hampshire – Franconia, White Mountains
  • Maine – Portland, Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park

This itinerary avoids major metropolitan areas but gives you a taste of the smaller idyllic coastal New England town. For peak baggers, this road trip itinerary also offers an opportunity to bag four major state’s highest peaks: Mt. Marcy (NY), Mt. Mansfield (VT), Mt. Washington (NH), and Mt. Katahdin (ME). Other hikes I would recommend on this trip are the Franconia Ridge Trail in New Hampshire and the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail in Maine.

The best time to take a road trip east to New England is early fall. The scorching summer heat (and the bugs that come with it) will be gone, and it will be too early for snow.

3. Road Trip South – Great Smoky Mountains

The best road trip from Chicago in winter is south to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. While extreme weather does exist in the Smoky Mountains, it is rare. For more than half of the days from November to February, the temperature in the Smoky Mountains is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re lucky, you might even get a 70 degree day. That’s basically bikini weather for a Chicagoan.

Some cities you might want to explore on this trip include Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, and Memphis. However, as each state’s Covid-19 procedures are constantly changing, make sure you read up on the most recent rules and regulations before you travel.

Regardless of which socially distanced road trip you decide to take, remember to always wear a mask and sanitize frequently. Order take out or buy groceries when possible, and try to limit interactions with other people.

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