Your Guide to a Great Northern Road Trip

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Explore dazzling cities, charming small towns, National Parks, historic sites, and some of the best views in the country on this epic cross-country road trip.

Route Distance: about 3,600 miles

Suggest time: 2-3 weeks

The Great Northern Road Trip is an adventure you’ll never forget. You’ll start in the state of Washington and follow U.S. Highway 2 for the majority of the journey until you end in Maine. Along the way, you’ll spend time in beautiful cities, pass over mountains, lakes, valleys, badlands, natural marvels, historical sites, and even cross the border into Canada. Before you get started, here’s everything you need to plan a road trip, including budgeting, planning your route, choosing the right car, utilizing apps, and more.

Animated map of road trip route for a Great Northern Road Trip, starting in Seattle, Washington and ending in Maine.Emma Kumer/rd.com

When to go

The best time of year for the Great Northern Road Trip is spring, summer, or fall. In winter, there may be times when conditions are too treacherous to travel. In fact, Highway-2 Washington sometimes closes altogether when the pass over the Cascade Mountains is deemed too icy to cross safely. Before you leave on this trip over Highway-2, (sometimes referred to as Route-2), make sure you do a thorough check of your vehicle and follow this road trip checklist.

Length of time

How much time you dedicate to this epic journey is up to you. If you forgo sleep and bathroom breaks you could take the Great Northern Road Trip in about 70 hours, but you’ll be missing out on some pretty spectacular experiences. To make the most of the trip, plan for a minimum of two weeks, however, if time and budget allow, three weeks is even better because it will give you time to make more stops along the way and linger in the destinations you’re most interested in, whether they be small towns with beautiful architecture or practically secret National Parks.

Washington

Skyline of Seattle in early evening with the Space Needle at the center; Seattle, Washington, Americajoe daniel price/Getty Images

Route distance: 326 miles

Suggested length of time: 2 to 4 days

The Great Northern Road Trip starts in Seattle, a dazzling city permeated by equal parts culture and nature. The State Hotel is the ideal Seattle home base. Located across from the world’s famous Pike Place Market, the hotel is within walking distance to other city highlights including the Seattle Art Museum, the waterfront, Seattle Aquarium, and some of the city’s finest restaurants (including Ben Paris, a lively restaurant with amazing craft cocktails located within the hotel).

The monorail is just a five-minute walk from The State Hotel and it’s the best way to get to Seattle Center and the city’s most iconic building, the Space Needle, Originally built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, the observation deck treats you to spectacular 360-degree views of the city, mountains, and the Puget Sound. Meanwhile, the all-glass floor offers an almost dizzying glimpse of the area below. Afterward, head over to G.H. Pasta Co. for a casual, reasonably-priced lunch of some of the most delicious fresh pasta you’ll ever have.

After Seattle, you’ll head north to the 326-mile-long Washington leg of Highway 2 and follow it over the Cascade Mountains. Expect plenty of beautiful scenery and sightings of bald eagles, deer, and mountain goats along the way.

Once you get to the other side of the Cascades Mountains, Lake Chelan is a worthy detour. It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in America. Campbell’s Resort on Lake Chelan is a great place to stay the night—every room has a private patio or balcony with a view of the water and it’s right downtown so you can walk to great restaurants like Local Myth Pizza.

From Lake Chelan, you’ll take another detour to Grand Coulee Dam. Built as part of FDR’s New Deal, it’s one of the largest concrete structures in the world. The visitor’s center is fascinating and free.

The next 150 miles are mostly desert, sagebrush, farmland, and bluffs until you reach the riverfront city of Spokane. Be sure to stop to stretch your legs at the vibrant Riverfront Park. Afterward, enjoy lunch in a historic flour mill with a view of the Spokane River at Clinkerdagger. For lodging, the Historic Davenport Hotel is beautiful and within walking distance to the majority of the sights, shops, and restaurants downtown.

Idaho

Rocks in the clear water in Pend Oreille Lake at Garfield Bay just south of Sandpoint, Idahogjohnstonphoto/Getty Images

Route distance: 80 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 to 2 days

After you leave Spokane, you’ll take Highway 2 across Idaho’s Panhandle. It’s called the Panhandle for a reason—it’s so long and narrow that the stretch of Highway 2 carrying you from Washington to Montana is just 80 miles.

The highlight of this leg of the trip is Pend Orielle, the largest lake in Idaho, where sparkling blue waters are surrounded by National Forests and rugged mountain ranges. The place to soak it all in is Sand Point, a ski town in winter that transforms into a beach community in warmer weather. Highlights include a beautiful sandy beach and a host of small shops and great casual restaurants, including Spud’s Waterfront Grill. The Sand Point area is home to a number of reasonably priced lodging options including Best Western Plus Ponderay Mountain Lodge, a newer hotel with amenities including a swimming pool and complimentary breakfast.

Montana

logan pass trail in Glacier national park on a sunny day, Montana, usa.Joecho-16/Getty Images

Route distance: 650 miles

Suggested length of time: 2 to 4 days

Montana is large and the landscape will change so many times you may feel like you’re driving through several different states. Highway 2 in this state spans over 650 miles. This Border-to-Border road trip also traverses the Big Sky State.

When you first enter Montana, be sure to check out Kootenia Falls between Libby and Troy. It’s the largest untamed waterfall in the area but the real attraction is the Kootenai Falls Swinging Bridge downstream and its awe-inspiring views of the gorge.

Highway 2 will guide you through old logging communities and rugged scenery, as you get closer to Glacier National Park, you’ll find family-friendly roadside attractions like go-carts, mini-golf, and quirky museums in Columbia Falls and Hungry Horse. Many locals claim this area is a vortex, especially Bad Rock Canyon, where it’s rumored birds won’t fly and trees grow crooked. It’s a great place to take a hike or stop for lunch at the Huckleberry Patch (be sure to get a slice of their homemade pie).

Next, you’ll stop at Glacier National Park-1,500 miles of mountain scenery, rivers, forests, more than 200 lakes, ancient valleys formed by glaciers, and over 700 miles of hiking trails. The park’s untamed backcountry is roamed by bears, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, wolves, and more. And yes, there are glaciers, at least for now. Sadly, scientists say they are on the cusp of disappearing due to climate change. This area is definitely worth taking an extra day or two to explore.

The crown jewel of Glacier National Park is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile two-lane highway snaking through forests, lakes, valleys, and mountain passes, with plenty of scenic-overlooks so you can pull over and gawk along the way.

Belton Chalet is only 10 miles from the park. It’s a National Historic Landmark filled with local history and artifacts. Its onsite restaurant and taproom will be welcome after a day exploring the park before you retire to your room at night.

Next, you’ll travel across the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. The Museum of the Plains Indian is normally open in spring, summer, and fall, and it’s a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the lives of the people indigenous to the area. As you continue to drive across Montana, you’ll find more chances to experience Native American culture such as the Wahkpa Chu’gn “Buffalo Jump” Archeological Site, where early Pains people hunted bison by driving them over a cliff. The H Earl Clack Museum is home to fascinating artifacts from this time period along with dinosaur bones and dioramas of the Plains lifestyle. The Quality Inn in Havre offers reasonably priced rooms with a pool and free breakfast.

North Dakota

Salem Sue is the World's Largest Holstein Cow at 38 feet high and 50 feet long, North Dakota, USAPeter Unger/Getty Images

Route distance: 358 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 to 2 days

Highway 2 takes 358 miles to travel over mostly flat, rural terrain in North Dakota. The first stop you’ll make is at Fort Union Trading Post, right on the other side of the Montana border. This was once the largest, most bustling trading post on the upper Missouri River, and the site was once visited by historical figures like Lewis and Clark.

If you came to see North Dakota’s famed Roadside Giants displays of quirky roadside art, this is a good place to take a 300-mile round-trip detour to drive the 30-mile route running from Gladstone to Regent where you’ll find the best examples. If not, the next stop of major interest is the small community of Epping.

Epping has a population of 100 and its entire Main Street has been preserved, dirt streets and all, and turned into the Buffalo Trails Museum, where you can learn about the early pioneers and Native American tribes who once called the area home.

One of your last stops in North Dakota will be Grand Forks. It’s the oldest city in the state and architecture buffs will love the many buildings dating back over 100-years old. There are many options for lodging including the Holiday Inn Express and Suites with a pool and free breakfast. For dinner, treat yourself to fried cheesy pickles and the pasta special at The Toasted Frog.

Minnesota

Duluth, Minnesota and Lake Superior in Summer seen from Above by DroneJacob Boomsma/Getty Images

Route distance: 264 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 to 2 days

This is lake country and if you brought a fishing pole, you’ll pass plenty of bait shops and opportunities for angling. Be sure to drive down Skyline Parkway, a 25-mile scenic drive that meanders along the bluffs above Duluth. The views are fantastic and there are plenty of viewpoints and hiking trails.

Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior, Duluth itself is a picturesque smaller city flanked by tall granite bluffs. There’s an abundance of natural beauty here with forests, harbor preserves, parks, and of course, the lake itself. Bob Dylan is from Duluth and although there isn’t a formal museum, his childhood home is still there as are plenty of nods to the singer, such as a street named Bob Dylan Way.

The Canal Park warehouse district is a pedestrian-friendly area full of charming shops, bars, and restaurants. The Lake Ave Restaurant and Bar is open for lunch and dinner and serves up some of the best burgers in town. The South Pier Inn On The Canal is adjacent to Canal Park on the waterfront with sumptuous amenities like whirlpool baths, fireplaces, private balconies, gorgeous views, and complimentary breakfast. Minnesota is also the kick-off point of a trip down the River Road.

Wisconsin

Route distance: 100 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 to 2 days

In Wisconsin, you’ll detour from Highway 2 and spend the majority of your time rolling along a 100-mile loop of Highway 13, while reveling in the majestic beauty of Lake Superior. The views from your car will be phenomenal but there will also be plenty of places to pull over for a better look at the farms, islands, and picturesque communities of the peninsula. The Americinn by Windham in Ashland is a great place to base your adventures here. They have great views, kid-friendly amenities like a pool and waterpark, free breakfast, a beach, and kitchenettes in the rooms. For dinner, enjoy comfort food at its best at the Deep Water Grille. Ashland is also home to the informative, David R. Obey Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the natural and cultural history of the region. One of these best road trip cars will make any driving vacation more enjoyable.

Michigan

One of the arches along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with mist in the backgroundsimplycmb/Getty Images

Route distance: 300 miles

Suggested length of time: 2 to 3 days

Highway 2 runs across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (affectionately known as “The Up”) in two segments, totaling about 300 miles. As you approach the Copper Country State Forest, you’ll see gorgeous outcrops and rock formations along the side of the road. On the other side, you’ll find small towns with rich logging and iron-mining histories. The Corning Pumping Engine and Mining Museum is a great place to learn about the area

One of the most memorable experiences on The Great Northern Road Trip will be a trip to Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, a small town that looks like it’s frozen in time. There are no cars allowed here, so you’ll make your way there on a passenger ferry. Once you arrive, most people get around by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage. The Victorian-era main street is lovely and there are incredible historic sites here, including well-preserved forts and areas seeped in Native American history. Most of the hotels on the island are very nice, but also quite pricey and many are seasonal. You can also stay nearby in St. Ignace at more modestly-priced options like the Cedar Hill Lodge, which is within walking distance to the restaurant downtown and includes perks like a pool and free breakfast.

Another Michigan Highlight will require a detour from Highway-2 to Highway-28. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is 40 miles of virgin sand dunes, beaches, and towering colorful bluffs. Just off the coast, you’ll find the lovely Apostle Islands. It’s a stunning area, especially if you book a boat tour or set off on a kayak to view it from the water. Also, recommended in this area is a glass-bottomed boat tour to see the many eerie shipwrecks in the Alger Underwater Preserve. This is another area where lodging tends to run on the expensive side. Boarders Inn and Suites by Cobblestone Hotels has a pool and it’s one of the more wallet-friendly options in town if you prefer cheap places to stay.

Also worthwhile is Sault St. Marie, Michigan’s oldest community. It was home to the Ojibwa for hundreds of years before the first trappers and colonists arrived late in the 17th century. The Antlers is a great place to stop for a hearty lunch, and famous for being decorated with antlers, taxidermy, and memorabilia of life in the area.

Canada

Aerial View of Montreal in Autumn Season, Quebec, CanadaR.M. Nunes/Getty Images

Route distance: 600 miles

Suggested length of time: 2 to 4 days

Next, you’ll venture into Canada for just over 600 miles. Highlights include Sudbury, an area known for rich mineral deposits of copper and nickel originally inhabited by the Ojibwa. It is home to Science North, one of the best science museums in the world. It’s full of life-size, hands-on exhibits dedicated to earth, space, and the environment. Also worth seeing is “The Big Nickel”, a 30-foot-tall replica of a Canadian Nickel. The Fairfield Inn and Suites is a great place to stay, with free breakfast and a pool. For dinner, Tucos Taco Lounge makes corn tortillas to order and they’re absolutely delicious. No time to stop for a meal? Here are the 25 best road trip snacks.

The other destination you won’t want to miss is the exciting city of Montreal, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada. Located on an island in the St Lawrence River, Montreal is known for its beauty, culture, and legendary food scene. You’ll also find the largest French-speaking population in the world outside France. Be sure to take in the views from Mount Royal Park, which was established in 19876. Locals call it “The Mountain,” because of the hills and stairs that lead up to a viewing area with jaw-dropping views of the city below. Cafe des Amis has two locations within the park if you’re looking for a spot for breakfast or lunch.

Hotel Zero 1 is a great place to stay if you want to explore Montreal’s fantastic shops, restaurants, and museums on foot. It’s adjacent to Chinatown, which is also worth exploring is. Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal is at the site of the city’s oldest European settlement, full of charming shops and sidewalk cafes. If your schedule allows, be sure to take in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which hosts an outstanding permanent collection alongside world-class rotating displays.

Vermont

Ben And Jerry's Ice Cream Factory And Corporate Headquarters; Waterbury, Vermont, USAJohn Greim/Getty Images

Route distance: 150 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 day

You’ll drop down to the United States in the postcard-perfect state of Vermont, where you’ll rejoin Highway 2 for about 150 miles. Be sure to visit the Shelbourne Museum, located on Lake Champagne just south of downtown Burlington. They have an entertaining collection of Americana and folk art as well as a collection of covered bridges and other buildings relocated buildings from throughout New England.

The number one tourist attraction in Vermont is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, which offers tours, a gift shop, and of course, decadent scoops of frozen goodness.

Highway-2 will take you through Montpelier, one of the most picturesque cities in the country, notable for its gold-domed capitol building. Montpelier is full of charming shops and restaurants and period architecture. The Italian food at Sarducci’s Restaurant and Bar wins raves from locals and visitors alike. The Capitol Plaza Hotel is a great place to stay, especially if you want to take advantage of the excellent steak house on site. Vermont is, of course, one of the best places to see fall foliage in New England.

New Hampshire

Route distance: 35 miles

Suggested length of time: 1 to 2 days

The New Hampshire part of US-2 is only 35 miles but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or worthwhile. It will take you right through downtown Lancaster, a town full of lovely, historic homes and buildings, including a courthouse dating back to the late 1800s. The small town of Jefferson also holds a great deal of appeal with a Christmas-themed amusement park named Santa’s Village and numerous parks and hiking trails.

Your last stop in the state will be Gorham, notable for the Gorham Historical Society and Railroad Museum housed in a historic train depot. Moose Brook State Park is a lovely place to explore. Bring your bathing suit because it’s famous for its swimming hole. Afterward, grab a grilled panini and some reading material at the White Mountain Cafe and Bookstore. Spend the night at the highly rated, affordably priced The Glen House. The rooms are spacious with stunning views of the White Mountains.

Maine

Monument Cove Acadia National ParkStan Dzugan/Getty Images

Route distance: 180 miles

Suggested length of time: 2 to 4 days

You’ll drive about 180 scenic miles in Maine until you reach the incredible Acadia National Park. Your first stop will be Bethel, a lovely area for hiking, biking, and skiing in winter. The town is full of lovely buildings, some over 200 years old, and there are a number of great casual restaurants and pubs like Smokin’ Good BBQ with its legendarily large portions.

Another highlight is Bar Harbor, one of the most romantic small towns in America. Located on Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor is filled with brightly covered shops and restaurants, and the countryside is dotted with vintage bargain bins, one of the hidden gems of Maine. It’s a great place for bike riding or whale watching, and of course, enjoying seafood fresh from the docks. Be sure to stop by Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium for a scoop of lobster ice cream just to say you tried it. The Harborside Hotel Spa and Marina is right downtown with stunning views of the harbor, a restaurant, pool, tennis courts, and private balconies.

Bar Harbor is also the perfect home base from which to explore the 4,136-acre Acadia National Park, which is sure to be one of the brightest spots on a trip full of wondrous experiences. There’s something here for everyone including 45 miles of historic carriage roads, 158 miles of hiking trails for all skill levels, sandy beaches, towering bluffs, mountains, tide pools, and more. Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is the highest spot on the eastern seaboard and a stunning spot to take in the sunset. It’s the perfect way to mark the end of your amazing journey.

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our American Road Trip Guide.

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Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest covering travel, lifestyle, history, and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Al Jazeera, Wine Enthusiast, Lonely Planet, HuffPost Food, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @TamaraGane