When it comes to road trips, the best of the best has to be taking a road trip from New York to California. This is a major bucket list item, and there’s no better time to make the trip than now.
Some people hesitate to do it as a family, but honestly, there’s no reason to wait. Think of it as an epic gift you can give to your kids! They’ll be seeing the country from coast to coast, stopping at some of the major cities and landmarks and undertaking one of the greatest road trips in America!
From toddlers to teens, this is totally a trip that everyone can do.
Distance from New York to California
If you drew a straight line from New York City to California, it would measure about 2,500 miles.
However, depending on your cross-country driving route and final destination, this calculation changes a lot. Here are the measurements for the killer NY to California road trips we’ve mapped out for you.
Route 1 – Most Direct Route
If you’re worried about making a wrong turn, this route is the simplest. All you have to do is stay on I-80 West for nearly the entire trip. You‘ll clock 2,906 miles going through major cities like Chicago, Des Moines, and Salt Lake City. Arriving in San Francisco, you’ll have clocked 2,906 miles.
Route 2 – Scenic Route 66
To get the true classic Route 66 experience, you’ll head from NY to Chicago, and then it’s the Classic Route 66 the rest of the way. You’ll pass through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The full distance covered is 2,929 miles, finishing with the end of the road in Santa Monica, California.
How Long Do I Need Driving New York To California
The amount of time it will take you to drive across the country really depends on what you plan to do. If you need to get there ASAP, you could do the drive in just over 40 hours without stopping. So, yes, it’s doable. But it’s not advised. Especially on a family road trip, who wants to be cooped up in a car for 40+ hours straight? Not me.
There’s so much to see and enjoy in this great country that it’s more likely you’ll want to stop along the way, check out the sights, and let everyone stretch their legs. A good rule of thumb would be to average five to seven hours of driving a day.
Realistically, a New York to California road trip, no matter the route, should be done over the course of at least a week. The best family road trip, coast to coast, could take about 3 weeks. This way, you can spend quality time in great cities and explore national parks and the gorgeous American landscape.
Best Time Of Year To Drive New York To California
One of the great things about the US is the variety of terrain and climates. So when planning a road trip from New York to California, the time of year must be taken into consideration.
The spring and fall are some of the best times to travel by car. You’ll avoid extreme temperatures, the likelihood of winter storms, and the summer crowds. It also means you can see the full bloom of springtime or the fabulous fall foliage.
It goes without saying that you should always check the weather and be prepared for the unexpected. This could also mean taking a different route.
Best Stops On A New York to California Road Trip
Route 1 – Most Direct Route
The best driving route from New York to California has to be following I-80 West. It’s the most direct route. It’s easy to follow, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. It’s a nice drive, but it’s not as scenic as Route 2- Scenic Route 66 mapped out below.
New York City
Beginning this epic cross-country road trip, the starting point is the one and only Big Apple. You’re setting off to see this great country, but it’s only right that you enjoy The City first.
Some of the coolest things in NYC are taking a stroll along the Highline and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Families with little ones will love Central Park, where there are several cool playgrounds and even a zoo.
Seeing a show on Broadway and checking out Times Square is always a favorite activity. NYC museums are among the best in the world. Kids especially love seeing the dinos at the Natural History Museum.
Heading west on I-80, you’ll put NYC behind with the destination set for Cleveland, Ohio. Traveling through the beautiful Pennsylvania landscape, you’ll cover nearly 470 miles when you arrive in Ohio’s capital.
You could easily fill several days in Cleveland with fun things for the whole family. Set on the shores of Lake Erie, the waterfront is the setting for activities. Depending on the season, you could spend the day on the water or enjoy dinner lakeside. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is perfect for outdoor adventure right in the city itself.
Leaving Cleveland, hop on I-90 West to get to Chicago, the next destination on this epic road trip.
Welcome to Chi-town, the third largest city in the country and the next major stop on your coast-to-coast road trip. There are tons of things to see and do in this great city, as well as nearby scenic drives in Illinois to easily make this more than just an overnight stop.
Definitely plan to spend a few days exploring the city. Make sure major sights like Millenium Park, home to “The Bean,” and the Art Institute of Chicago are on the itinerary. The city’s filled with world-class restaurants and entertainment. To get a bird’s eye view, head to the Skydeck at the top of Willis Tower.
There are so many things to do with kids in Chicago, no matter the time of year. It’s easy to pack the itinerary with things like the Children’s Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, and kayaking the Chicago River.
Pro Tip: You’ll be switching time zones just before reaching Chicago (Illinois is on CST/CDT). So, keep this in mind for anything you plan to do or see in Chi-town.
Des Moines, Iowa
Leaving Chicago, I-80 West once again becomes your principal road to Des Moines, Iowa’s capital, and the next stop on this cross-country road trip.
Checking out the impressive Iowa State Capitol is a definite must when in town. You can easily pick up provisions at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, considered one of the best in the country. Kids of all ages will love spending time at Adventureland Park and seeing the animals at the Blank Park Zoo.
If you’re traveling cross country by RV, you’ll be set in the capital of the Hawkeye state. You’ll find a bunch of RV parks to choose from, including Griff’s Valley View RV Park & Campground in Altoo and Sleepy Hollow RV Park & Campground in Oxford.
With time to spare in your itinerary, take the Western Skies Scenic Byway, one of the most beautiful scenic drives in Iowa as an alternative to following the I-80 the whole way.
The truth is that it’s a long haul from Des Moines to Salt Lake City. So, to break up the drive, you’ll want to stop off somewhere along the way. There are tons of little towns along I-80 to choose from, but the best place has to be Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
It’s almost exactly at the halfway point between the two cities, and it’s got fun things to do for the whole family.
Definitely plan to visit Scotts Bluff National Monument and its landmark for Many People. Here you’ll be able to explore the jaw-dropping landscape on foot or on a scenic drive through Nebraska. You can also learn about the area’s history, including its importance to native peoples and pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Pro-Tip: There are several places to stay in Scottsbluff, including Captain Critter’s year-round RV Park. Just before Scottsbluff, you’ll switch from Central to Mountain Time Zones.
Salt Lake City, Utah
The next major stop on the trip is Salt Lake City. This fabulous city is a major destination all on its own and lucky for us, it’s on the most direct route from NY to Cali. Located about 8 hours from Scottsbluff, the whole family will be happy to get out of the car and explore.
Everyone will love to get into nature in Salt Lake. There are so many places to pick from, like Sugar House Park, This is the Place Heritage Park, and Great Salt Lake Park.
Truckee & Lake Tahoe, California
The next stop on this cross-country road trip is Truckee and Lake Tahoe, California. Known worldwide, this beautiful area is full of outdoor adventure year-round. Even Mark Twain said, “To breathe the same air as angels, you must go to Tahoe.”
Tahoe National Forest, Lake Tahoe, and the Sierra provide awesome things to do any time of year. During the summer you will be living it up on the water and hiking the magnificent mountain range. Winter sports are in high gear in Lake Tahoe. So, you can be skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling for days.
Pro Tip: As you cross the border from Utah into Nevada, remember to switch your clock. You’ll be in the Pacific Time Zone for the remainder of the trip.
- If you’re not desperate to hit the coast at this point, spare some time to drop down from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite to enjoy even more of the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains
San Francisco, California
Yes, Truckee and Lake Tahoe are in California, but this epic NY to California road trip ends with the final destination of San Francisco. So, carry on to the coast!
The Bay Area has so many fun things to do no matter what your family makeup. No trip to San Fran is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge or riding the cable car.
Get out into the beauty of the redwoods in Muir Woods. Make sure to book your reservation (parking and entrance fee) for Muir Woods in advance at gomuirwoods.com. The good news for families with little ones, kids 15 and under are free.
Everyone will have fun at Pier 39. It’s where you’ll find the Aquarium of the Bay and rides, including a carousel and roller coaster.
Route 2 – Scenic Route 66
The classic cross country road trip known around the world is one on the classic Route 66. It’s the best route if you’re looking for the best scenic New York to California drive.
When it was created in 1926 by the Bureau of Public Roads, it was the first of its kind. Connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, it created a public road through America’s Southwest. Today, much of the original road has been replaced by I-40. So, you’ll be following the path of the historic Route 66, even if the road sign reads something different.
The beginning of this scenic cross-country road trip has the same path as Route 1–Most Direct Route mapped out above.
Leaving New York, you’ll head west on I-80 passing through Cleveland and Chicago. After Chi-town, head south on I-55 in the direction of St. Louis, Missouri, the next stop on this NY to California scenic road trip. Although the signs might read something different, at this point, you’re on good old Route 66.
St. Louis, Missouri
Driving from New York to California, one of the most iconic structures is the Gateway Arch of St. Louis – The symbol of America’s expansion west. So, of course, you have to make a stop to see it. But St. Louis should be more than just a quick stop. Instead, you should plan to spend time there and enjoy the city.
Families with kids will love interacting with the fountains at City Garden on a warm day. Union Station is fun for kids of all ages. It has a carousel, mini golf, and even a 3D light show. A special treat is a visit to the Butterfly House in the Missouri Botanic Gardens, where kids 3-5 enjoy a reduced rate. Picking up things for the trip at the Soulard Farmers Market is a great idea.
- We have more ideas for interesting scenic drives around St Louis and Missouri
After St. Louis, you’ll follow I-44 West in the direction of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Tulsa & Clinton, Oklahoma
Oklahoma is where you’ll find the most significant stretches of road that are the original Route 66. So, you’ll love the drive along this leg of the trip.
Tulsa is a great next stop after St. Louis. It’s a bustling city with fun things for families. You can stretch your legs in the beautiful Woodward Park. If you want to be adventurous, take the kids to Gathering Place in South Tulsa. For educational fun, check out the Tulsa Air and Space Museum or the Tulsa Zoo.
As you wind your way through Oklahoma, definitely make a stop at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. You’re in the process of traveling this iconic road, so why not learn more about it at the museum?
Amarillo has one of the coolest things you’ll see along Route 66. The Cadillac Ranch is a unique art installation where cars covered in graffiti are buried in the ground so that they stand straight up. It’s something you just need to see to believe.
When traveling Route 66, it makes sense to stop by the Route 66–Sixth Street Historic District in Amarillo. It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat.
Get out of the car and into nature at the Palo Duro Canyon State Park. There you can take a hike and even cross the canyon on a zipline.
If you’re traveling by RV, you should definitely consider visiting the Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum in Amarillo. It’s super interesting for adults and kids alike.
- We have more ideas here for unique places you could add to your itinerary through Texas
Pro Tip: Remember to switch your clock to Mountain Standard Time when you enter New Mexico.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Albuquerque is the next major stop on this New York to California drive. After a 5+ hour drive from Amarillo, it’s the perfect place to stay for a bit. This great city has a ton of things to do that involve the beautiful outdoors and diverse culture of Albuquerque.
For fun in the great outdoors, ride the tram at Sandia Peak to soar over the landscape, check out the Biological Park, or head to the Petrified National Forest. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a great place to expand your understanding of Native Americans. You’ll see artwork and can even buy traditional foods.
An absolute must is visiting Old Town Albuquerque. Dating back to 1709, it has been a major part of the city for centuries. Here, you’ll love seeing the adobe architecture and grabbing a bite at any of the great restaurants.
On the drive from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, Route 66 runs straight through Winslow, Arizona. It’s a great little place where you can get out and stretch your legs a bit.
Classic Rock fans will love checking out the corner mentioned in the classic song “Take it Easy” by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. You can also check out the Meteor Crater in Winslow.
Here it is, Flagstaff, Arizona–The last major stop on your road trip from New York to California. This stop is absolutely awesome. It’s from here that you can visit the Grand Canyon. You’ll want to dedicate a whole day to visiting the Grand Canyon, so it’s best to plan a couple of days in Flagstaff.
Flagstaff itself is a great place for families. You can ride a lift at Snowbowl, hike Red Mountain, or venture underground at the Lava River Cave. Lowell Observatory is always a treat, no matter how old you are.
Departing Flagstaff, you’re again headed west on I-40 toward LA. You’ll drive straight through the Mojave National Preserve, so why not get out and explore the beautiful landscape?
Pro Tip: Crossing the border into California, remember to switch to Pacific Standard Time.
Santa Monica, California
Welcome to California and the great city of Los Angeles. Actually, to be more precise, Route 66 technically ends in Santa Monica.
You’ll have an incredible time exploring Santa Monica and LA County. Of course, dipping your toes in the sand and breathing in the ocean air is a generous reward for undertaking this epic New York to California road trip.
Definitely make sure to enjoy the Santa Monica Pier and ride all the rides, like the iconic Ferris wheel. It’s also here that you must take a photo of the “End of Road” sign that signals the end point of Route 66.
More Tips for Road Tripping New York to California
- Can’t decide which route to take on your road trip from New York to California? You can do them both. Follow one from New York to California and the other on the way back.
- When traveling during the winter months, make sure to have all-wheel drive or chains in your car. When conditions are icy or snowy, roads may require either of these.
- Traveling coast to coast means you’ll be crossing time zones. Make sure to know at what point in the trip the zones switch. Remember that when cell phone service is spotty, it might not switch the time automatically for you. For more information, check out the National Institute for Standards and Technology.
- For up-to-date weather conditions and alerts from the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, dial 511 in most states. Some states tweet road conditions via the state’s Department of Transportation. So, consider following ones like New York State DOT @nysdot.
- Many states also have websites dedicated to real-time traffic alerts. Check out ones like 511pa.com for Pennsylvania and az511.com for Arizona.
- Never forget an important road trip item again! Check out our road trip essentials checklist for a printable PDF.
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