Headed cross country and looking to take a road trip from New York to San Francisco? Come check out our entire route below, with lots of tips and tricks – we’ve got loads of info for you!
Our 6-day road trip from New York to San Francisco found us in 14 states, 5 random hotels/motels, 7 different fast food chains, and thankfully 0 flat tires or car troubles.
We counted roadkill on the side of the road (too many to report), cheered upon passing each state welcome sign, and were more spontaneous than ever before (I’m a planner by nature…)
And the primary reason for this crazy-fast super-long road trip across all of the US? Moving to California, San Francisco to be exact! After packing up allll our belongings in NY which we’d accumulated over the course of our entire lives, off to that sweet, sweet, sunny California life it was!
We traversed the country so fast by driving between 6 to 8 hours each day, sometimes even 10. More than enough snacks were brought – I am my mothers daughter after all! And thankfully to a super cheap trial of XM radio, we were able to rock out even when the radio couldn’t find any local stations (think middle of nowhere PA, WY, and SD).
Since we were moving to California, we drove cross country via our own car. However, if you don’t have any plans on moving and/or have limited time for this New York to San Francisco road trip, it’s wise to pay for a rental car.
When we’re taking road trips and in need of a rental car, I like to search via this site in order to compare rental companies to see who has the best price. Note that many rental car shops charge extra for returning their cars at different pick up/drop off locations – just something to keep in mind (there’s no way it makes sense to drive allll the way back to NYC just to avoid this pesky fee).
Search for the cheapest car rentals over here!
Would we do this road trip again? Sure thing! It was definitely hard to pick and choose what sights to see, and would have gladly extended our trip if we didn’t have to beat the moving truck to California.
A rough map of our week on the road…
It’s absurd how diverse our own nation is, and after this epic road trip from New York to San Francisco, I’m making it a point to explore the USA more so than in the past.
Making the drive from New York to San Francisco yourself? Use this as a starting off point – there’s SO many stops I wanted to make on the way but didn’t have time for them.
Highlights of Our Cross Country Road Trip from New York to San Francisco
1) Stuffing our Faces with Waffles in State College, Pennsylvania
Officially our first stop after leaving New York, and driving through New Jersey, and part of Pennsylvania.
There were not only regular waffles. Belgium waffles with chocolate chips, whipped cream, and even more chocolate chips on top. Fresh strawberries, too. It was heaven I tell you, until my stomach started hurting when I ate too much. I’ll never learn…
It rained for a portion of our drive leaving the East Coast, and didn’t stop until past Ohio or so. A big reason why we decided to move to the West Coast (yes, there’s a drought, but I’m no fan of rain…)
We also made a brief pit stop in Pittsburgh, PA at Mount Washington to see the city from above. Despite the overcast day (and brief intervals of rain), the views were fantastic. Either that, or it was nice to stretch our legs for a bit.
2) Stopping in Tiny Towns in Ohio
Specifically Elmore, where we had to find a post office to mail a few post cards. I had decided to send post cards as thank you’s for all of our going away presents.
The town, albeit super tiny, was super super cute, and I honestly wish we had more time to spend here. Made me feel like I was back in time! All that land on the side of the highway was so inviting after living in cramped NYC for what felt like so long…
Oh, and we feasted on Chick-Fil-A in Ohio, too. Chicken nuggets and honey mustard had never tasted so good.
3) Eating (Too Much) Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin
We were able to meet up with my high-school best friend’s little sister (whose not so little anymore), catch up, and of course: eat some cheese curds. Because, apparently, thats what you do in Madison, WI. #finemybe!
She took us to the capital building and we walked around town for a bit before saying our goodbyes.
Before leaving the state, we made a pit stop at Carr Valley Cheese Co, where we watched firsthand cheese being born. In large bats, not animals giving birth to cheese or anything like that (but how cool would that be?). It’s safe to say too many samples were consumed.
That chunk we found a few days later in the mini cooler probably wasn’t the best idea we’ve had yet.
4) Saying Hello to the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota
Because how could you not stop at a road side attraction that is in the middle of Minnesota, specifically Blue Earth?
And hello, it’s the Jolly Green Giant! We posed for so many silly photos (because that’s what you do on the side of the road in Minnesota…), and marveled in our time in the sun outside of the car.
There was a lot of open land in Minnesota, and by a lot, I really mean, a lot. Lots of cows and other wild life every where we looked! Oh, and sundaes from Dairy Queen couldn’t be missed…
5) Drinking 5c Coffee in Wall Drug, South Dakota
This is the place my husband cannot stop talking about, even two years later. I just asked him his favorite part of Wall, and he bolted out “EVERYTHING”. What is it exactly?
I can’t give you a definite answer, but it’s an extremely quirky general store (technically a drug store) with everything random you can think of. Too bad we didn’t ride the jackolope (yes, a plastic giant rabbit looking thing)- guess we’ll have to go back!
Some of the highlights: 5 cent coffee (yes, it’s really 5 cents), stuffing our faces with homemade maple-glazed donuts, and trying on too many faux skin hats in the gift shop.
6) Witnessing Nature in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Before roughly planning out our cross country road trip from New York to San Francisco, I had never even heard of this National Park before. We drove through the park in about 2 hours, and really feel like we saw a big portion in such a short period of time.
The otherworldly landscape of the Badlands really was that spectacular, and we were amazed at all the layered rock formations, steep canyons, and towering spires we found. The colors were fascinating, the wildflowers were blooming, and the overlooks were worth the drive.
And thankfully we didn’t run into any rattlesnakes!
7) Picking Presidents’ Noses at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Since we’ll most likely never make it back to South Dakota (such a random state, I know!), we couldn’t leave the area without checking out Mount Rushmore.
Before visiting, I hadn’t had a clue as to which presidents were carved into the stone. I can safely say I now know who’s famous faces are up there: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt! And being 60-feet tall, the intricacies of each sculpture are really apparent!
All in all, we checked off this iconic American symbol in just over an hour or so on our road trip from New York to San Francisco.
8) Getting Lost on the way to Medicine Bow, Wyoming
Long story short: don’t always let your GPS guide you, and follow your gut and read a PAPER map if there are multiple ways to reach a destination.
I was too excited when Google Maps found us a “quicker route” to Medicine Bow, but when we found ourselves driving on dirt roads for miles on end forced to do way below the speed limit, it was the opposite of what we had envisioned.
Thankfully, we turned around before getting stuck in any mud puddles or any rocks jammed our tires. We definitely wasted a good portion of the day, although the views nearby were nothing short of spectacular.
We were lucky to see a pretty fabulous sunset from the road that night.
9) Driving Through Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
There was snow on the ground. It was September!
We did drive through the park, but with limited remaining time, could only stay for a bit. I always forget to factor in driving time once we officially reach a destination…. We finally reached an entrance to the park, but I was too cheap that day to pay the $10 to get phenomenal photos of the lake. My bad. Next time.
10) Gallivanting with the Antelope and Bison in Antelope Island State Park, Utah
By far one of my favorite stops throughout the duration of our cross country road trip from New York to San Francisco.
So much pristine wildlife, and hardly any crowds. We were two of the very few tourists visiting the park; either it’s not too well-known, it was the beginning of off season (?), or we arrived to the park earlier in the day than most.
The sunflowers were shining, the bison were out and about in large herds, and the reflections of the mountains on the Great Salt Lake were like no other. I could have stayed all day.. but we were en route to Reno for the night.
Although we only saw a few antelope (3 in total, and I ran away like a little baby…), the sheer numbers of bison largely made up for that disappoint.
More photos and information about Antelope Island here.
11) Being Wow-ed at The Bonneville Salt Flats
Located straight off the highway (literally, we could see the salt flats from the road..), making a quick stop here wasn’t even in question. Miles and miles of salt… that’s all you could see.
And it was downright beautiful! Makes me want to explore the Salt Flats in Bolivia that much more! And since we’d never been to Death Valley before, I was eager to see these random salt flats off the highway. The raceway was nearby but we didn’t venture too far from the highway.
We could have even driven our car on the salt… to say we were too chicken is a massive understatement. If we had rented a car, that may be a different story, but this pristine working car was crucial to get us safely to San Francisco!
12) Cruising through Reno, Nevada
What a quirky little city. From $1 Bud Light cans to $4.99 steak meals, no wonder they call it the “Biggest Little City in the World”.
A quick drive by was all we could fit in before darkness took over, but it was enough. I promise.
Even better? We scored a sweet hotel room at Harrah’s for $23 a night through Hotel Tonight. We had wanted to play some slots but the days excitement got the best of us and we fell right asleep in our plush, King-size bed…
13) Seeing Blue in Tahoe, Border of Nevada + California
Our last stop before officially reaching the Bay Area! I jumped out of my seat once we came upon the Welcome to California sign… it sure was quite a welcome! And technically our first Mexican meal in California (if you don’t know yet, I’m quite obsessed with all things guacamole)!
The color of the lake was unreal (so turquoise), and I secretly wished I had donned my bathing suit! Yes, I would have jumped right in! Being cramped up in a car for hours upon hours doesn’t help either!
We only had time to wander around the north side of the lake (hello, California traffic), but being only 4 hours from our new home, I knew we’d be back so I didn’t fret (too) much.
14) Reaching the SF Bay Area (!!!)
We stayed with my darling sister-in-law that first night in SF since our furniture and other belongings wouldn’t be arriving ’til the next day. Homemade food and my favorite nephew were all I wanted after so much car time.
Once we arrived in our apartment the next day to sunset palm tree views, I knew this was the place I was meant to be… utter happiness all around. 🙂 Our road trip from New York to San Francisco was a complete success! Phew!
I still cannot believe we’ve been living here in California for exactly two years. We sure have explored quite a bit of our new home state, but we’ve got lots more adventuring to do! Currently working on a California bucket list… stay tuned!
If you’re thinking of tackling your own road trip from New York to San Francisco, I highly recommend it. We zipped through the country pretty quickly (a total of 6 days), but still felt like we were able to see so much. Feel free to comment with any questions!
And be sure to check out my cross country road trip packing list… it’s important to have all the necessary items with you for a harmless trip!