San Francisco to New York drive through the Wild West

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This amazing San Francisco to New York drive takes you from coast to coast through rich and still unexplored regions. It lets you discover the culture of the Wild West and the seemingly endless open spaces in America’s Heartland. Discover small towns, old saloons and impressive nature that most people just fly across.

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San Francisco to New York road trip guide

You find the destinations on the itinerary marked out on the map below.

  • Total distance: 3382 mi / 5443 km
  • Total driving time: 59 h

Part 1: American Wild West (yellow on map)

Everyone knows about the American Wild West. Still it’s often overlooked as a travel destination. Maybe because the area where you can explore it is so vast. And because it’s in fact still pretty wild.

The American Wild West is away from the big cities and everything you associate with them. Instead of concrete and skyscrapers you get to see huge land areas with magnificent nature, old saloons just like in the movies and locals in cowboy boots and hats.

San Francisco is the starting point before the trip into the Wild West takes shape with stops in Virginia City, Shoeshone Falls, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Cody, Mount Rushmore and finally Badlands National Park.

Wild West part of road trip route
There’s nothing like the West!

A. San Francisco, California

Exploring San Francisco is a great way to start off a cross country road trip. The city welcomes you to be stunned by the Golden Gate Bridge, hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf and tour the historic prison of Alcatraz before beginning the drive to New York.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Officially the color of the bridge is called international orange. The color was hand-picked to make the bridge easy to spot even in fog and to complement the natural surroundings in the area. And the beautiful sight of the Golden Gate Bridge is something you never forget.

Golden Gate Bridge at start of road trip route
The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

Have good times at Fisherman’s Wharf

After exploring Golden Gate Bridge it’s a good idea is to head to the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf. In the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood you find restaurants, shops and a generally great vibe.

In the area you at Pier 39 certainly need to make a stop to check out the noisy residents. There the barking sea lions of San Francisco enjoy themselves at the floating docks.

Pier 39 in San Fran of road trip route
Sea lions at Pier 39, San Francisco.

Tour storied Alcatraz

From the waterfront at Pier 39, you can see Alcatraz Island. On the island sits the renowned Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which was in use from 1934 until 1963.

The maximum security federal prison used to keep high-profile criminals behind bars. But it turned out that it was possible to find escape ways even from Alcatraz, as the famous escape of 1962 showed. When you visit Alcatraz, you get to see the grounds and learn more about the history of the prison.

Alcatraz Prison of cross country road trip route
The historic island and prison Alcatraz, San Francisco.

B. Virginia City, Nevada

  • Driving distance: 224 mi / 360 km
  • Driving time: 4 h

After saying goodbye to Alcatraz and San Francisco, it’s time to leave the Pacific Coast to get a first dose of the Wild West. Make acquaintance with Virginia City, Nevada, which once was one of the richest places in America.

In the 1860s, Virginia City in today’s Nevada was a booming Wild West town with around 25,000 residents. People thrived off the legendary Comstock Lode, the first discovered major silver ore lode in the US.

The hills in the Virginia City area literally created millionaires. People came from near and far to mine silver and gold. For a time the area was even called the richest place on earth. And the wealth had an important role in funding the building of San Francisco and also in financing the Civil War.

But as the mining output decreased so did the population. And that quickly. Soon less than a thousand residents remained.

Nevertheless, today Virginia City is one of the best preserved old mining towns in the entire West, with many buildings from the 1800s still standing.

Even though the original boom since long is gone there’s a certain liveliness with numerous saloons, shops, museums and other things to do in town. A visit is a rewarding experience both for adults and younger travelers.

To really grasp the history of Virginia City, a good idea is to take a mine tour. Then you go underground and see where the miners from all over the world worked 12 h or more a day during the glory days of the then thriving Virginia City.

Road trip route through Virginia City
Virginia City, Nevada.

C. Twin Falls, Idaho

  • Driving distance: 459 mi (739 km)
  • Driving time: 7 h

The city Twin Falls is the perfect place to base yourself when you discover two of the most jaw-dropping places in Idaho, Shoshone Falls and Snake River Canyon.

Marvel at the Niagara Falls of the West

Just 3 miles (4.8 km) outside the city of Twin Falls you find Shoshone Falls. Shoshone Falls on Snake River is called the Niagara Falls of the West.

It’s not as wide as Niagara Falls and not as much water passes through Shoshone. However, Shoshone actually is about 40 feet (12 m) higher than Niagara Falls. Water flows are higher during spring and early summer and lower during late summer and fall. But no matter when you go the views at Shoshone Falls are amazing.

In the area at the falls you apart from a scenic overlook find playgrounds, hiking trails, picnic areas and even a lake. The lake, Dierkes Lake, is perfect if you’re up for some swimming when driving from San Francisco to New York.

Shoeshone Falls stop of road trip route
Shoshone Falls, Idaho.

Hike Snake River Canyon

A popular way to explore Snake River Canyon is to enjoy the Snake River Canyon Trail. As the trail follows the canyon rim it provides viewpoints of waterfalls, canyon walls and the monumental Perrine Bridge.

The Perrine Bridge is a highlight looking almighty at a level of 486 feet (148 m) above the canyon floor.

Another interesting spot along the trail to explore is the Evel Knievel jump spot. Evel Knievel tried, but failed to, jump across Snake River Canyon. But it could have ended much worse than it did. Evel Knievel got away with just a broken nose.

The road trip route takes you to Snake River Canyon
Snake River Canyon, Idaho.

D. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

  • Driving distance: 254 mi / 409 km
  • Driving time: 5 h

The road trip continues east into Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park is the first but certainly not the last national park on the itinerary.

Grand Teton National Park is living a life in the shadow of its northern neighbor Yellowstone National Park. Although not as huge as Yellowstone, Grand Teton is as charming and a must visit when you’re in the area.

From the grasslands in the park you see the majestic Teton Mountains towering up. The view is unusually impressive as you can see the entire mountain range and not only the top parts of the mountains.

Highlights in the park not to be missed are the lakes and the historic settlement.

Enjoy picturesque lakes

Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake are two beautiful lakes to visit. The former is about 15 miles (24 km) long and it’s located in the northern end of the park. Jenny Lake is much smaller and located a few miles south of Jackson Lake.

The lakes are as most breathtaking on days when the water is calm and the mountains are reflected by the lake. Popular activities in and on the lake are swimming, kayaking and canoeing.

Road trip route including Grand Teton National Park
Kayaking on Jenny Lake.

Imagine being a settler in the 1890s

Another great place to see when visiting Grand Teton National Park is the Mormon Row Historic District. There you find preserved homesteads and barns in the foreground to the Teton Range.

The buildings were once put up by Mormon settlers that began to arrive in the 1890s. Today Mormon Row is listed on the national register of historic places. But you certainly don’t need to be into history to enjoy the scenic location with the Tetons in the backdrop.

Barn at Grand Teton stop of road trip route
Barn in Mormon Row.

E. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

  • Driving distance: 30 mi / 48 km
  • Driving time: 1 h

After some long drives, it’s nice with such a short stretch from Teton to Yellowstone National Park. In Yellowstone, you need more time than in the former as it’s so huge.

Size wise Yellowstone National Park is larger than the small states Rhode Island and Delaware. And there are so many reasons to go to Yellowstone National Park. In the park you find rivers, canyons, valleys, mountain ranges, hot springs, geysers and much more.

As the park is so big, you can only scratch the surface if all you have is just a few days. Luckily though, some of the must sees are easily accessible from the roads in the park. So even if you only scratch the surface you at least have time to see many of the park’s most famous spots.

Colorful Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring is many photographers’ wet dream. Enjoy the blue, orange, yellow and green spectacle provided by nature as you stop by to check it out – prepare to be amazed.

The Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring shows off its bright colors.

Old Faithful putting on a show

Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the park, erupts at regular intervals. It’s much more likely to start on time than the movie at your local cinema. Just sit down and enjoy the show.

The Old Faithful
The Old Faithful erupts on time, just like its name suggests.

Experience bison jams in Lamar valley

You have surely been in a traffic jam. But have you been in a bison jam?

In Lamar Valley, you find bison roaming around freely everywhere. The road through the valley is shared by cars and bison, and in Lamar Valley cars are obligated to yield – suddenly driving on Manhattan seems like a breeze.

Bison hoard in Lamar Valley.
Lamar Valley is full of bison like usual.

F. Cody, Wyoming

  • Driving distance: 97 mi / 156 km
  • Driving time: 2.5 h

Cody is located about 2 h east of the southern loop road of Yellowstone National Park. It is possible to use Cody as a base for your Yellowstone visit, but the travel time of 2 h each way just to get to the center of the park can be exhausting. Therefore it’s optimal to split them up on the itinerary.

Cody is as Wild West as it gets. The city is named after the founder William F. Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill. He passed through the region in the 1870s and fell in love. Rich soil, scenery, hunting and a good location for visiting Yellowstone National Park were attributes he liked.

In Cody you can learn more about Buffalo Bill and the Wild West by going to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. And Cody claims to be the rodeo capital of the world, so this is the spot if you would like to go on a rodeo.

Learn about the Wild West

Buffalo Bill Center of the West is a great place to learn more about the Wild West. It’s not only one museum, but five in one.

The different museums include the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indians Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum. The Wild West center is both fun and educational to visit.

Buffalo Bill Center of the Wild West
Buffalo Bill Center of the Wild West.

Go on a rodeo in the rodeo capital

The Cody Stampede rodeo officially started in 1919 and here you find a rodeo tradition like in no other place. In the summer every night in Cody is rodeo night. At Stampede Park you get to see cowboys compete in different rodeo competitions, while showing you the Wild West.

Road trip route with rodeo stop
Rodeo in Cody.

And the venue with the sun setting over the mountains is just spectacular. Get there early and enjoy the atmosphere around the grounds before the show starts!

The rodeo venue in Cody
The rodeo venue in Cody.

G. Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

  • Driving distance: 366 mi / 589 km
  • Driving time: 6.5 h

Now it’s time to admire some familiar faces: Say hello to the old national heroes at Mount Rushmore.

The faces of the four presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore in the years from 1927 to 1941. They were chosen to represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the US.

The 60 feet (18 m) high president faces are surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills in a setting that couldn’t be more stunning. And every night during late spring, summer and early autumn, a lightning ceremony is held at the monument, meaning you can even enjoy the sculptures after dark.

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota
The four presidents sculptured into the mountain side.

Additional stop: A fun additional stop is Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. It’s one of the oldest national park in the US and was the first cave to become a national park. In the towns Hot Springs and Custer you find convenient places to stay near Wind Cave National Park.

H. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

  • Driving distance: 75 mi / 121 km
  • Driving time: 1.5 h

It’s time for the third national park on the itinerary. For some more Wild West feel and amazing nature, Badlands National Park is an obvious stop to make.

Native Americans and fur trappers who traveled through what today is Badlands National Park referred to the area as bad land for its extreme temperatures, short supply of water and inhospitable terrain. Nowadays the beautiful rock formations draw visitors year after year.

Huge rock formation in the Badlands.
Huge rock formations.

The rock formations are what really make the Badlands so unique. The different layers of the rocks are easily visible. And to the beautiful rock formations the wildlife in the park adds another dimension to the experience.

Within the park you find bison wandering around and the prairie dogs even have their own town. In Robert’s Prairie Dog Town you don’t have to be lucky to spot a prairie dog.

Prairie dog in Robert´s Prairie Dog Town.
A prairie dog in Robert’s Prairie Dog Town.

Part 2: Heartland of America (red on map)

As we leave the Badlands we’re about to begin the second stretch of the San Francisco to New York road trip itinerary. Now it’s time to explore the Heartland of America.

The Heartland of USA is the group of states in the middle of the country, the heart of America.

Sometimes they are referred to as flyover states, as people tend to visit the coasts of the country but not the middle.

Here in the central part of the country, the pace is often lower than on the coasts. And the endless fields create optimal conditions for agriculture.

Discover the Heartland with stops in Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Shipshewana and Cleveland.

Endless fields at sunset
Endless fields in the heart of America.

A. Omaha, Nebraska

  • Driving distance: 451 mi / 726 km
  • Driving time: 6.5 h

The first destination on the drive through the Heartland is Omaha in Nebraska.

Even though you stay in a city it’s easy to see some of the countryside while you are in Omaha. A good drive is the very short one to the Boys Town area where you get to see farms, cornfields and all the things you associate with the Heartland.

In the city of Omaha you find one of the best zoo’s in the US, Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. It’s really huge and packed with animals from all over the globe.

A highlight in the zoo is Lied Jungle, where you find apes having a blast as well as crashing waterfalls. Another is the largest indoor desert in the world. The huge desert features life from Namib Desert of Africa, Red Center of Australia and Sonoran Desert of Southwest United States.

Zoo in Omaha
Visit the animals at the zoo in Omaha.

Additional stop: When you continue the journey towards the next stop, Des Moines, just a small detour can take you to Elk Horn. In Elk Horn you still find many traces of Scandinavia. The most obvious one is an authentic Danish windmill that symbolizes the small town.

Windmill in Elk Horn
Windmill in Elk Horn.

B. Des Moines, Iowa

  • Driving distance: 134 mi / 216 km
  • Driving time: 2 h

Des Moines is a very pretty city. A clear example of that is the Capitol Building in Des Moines. It’s certainly one of the best looking capitol buildings in the USA. The golden dome is really something to behold.

But the city is not only pretty. It’s also very fun to visit. In Des Moines you find Downtown Farmers Market, Des Moines Art Center and a diverse selection of restaurants.

However, maybe you after all find the most charming part of this stop in nearby Madison County. Here you apart from a very idyllic setting also find the covered bridges that were featured in the book and movie with the name The Bridges of Madison County.

Madison County bridge
A covered bridge in Madison County.

C. Chicago, Illinois

  • Driving distance: 333 mi / 536 km
  • Driving time: 5.5 h

We go from the peacefulness in Iowa to a huge metropolitan area in Illinois. It’s time to pay a visit to Chicago. And no matter what you’re into you find it in Chicago.

If you look for a thrill you should visit the Willis Tower Skydeck. Here you get to see Chicago from 1,353 feet (412 meters) above the streets. Apart from epic views of the city you on a clear day also can see as much as 50 miles out.

To unwind after the thrill of Willis Tower a good option is to take a walk in Millennium Park just like the locals. Don’t forget to check out Cloud Gate while you’re there. The glistening sculpture, also known as the Bean, is a must to see for a first time visitor.

And if you come in summer, why not visit a Lake Michigan beach and soak up some sun? The possibilities are endless when you visit Chicago.

Millennium Park Chicago
Millennium Park in Chicago.

D. Shipshewana, Indiana

  • Driving distance: 130 mi / 209 km
  • Driving time: 2.5 h

Only a couple of hours away from Chicago, but it feels like an entirely different universe. Welcome to Shipshewana in Indiana.

Shipshewana is home to one of the largest Amish settlements in the US. The contrasts between new and old hits you as soon as you see the first horse-drawn wagon as you approach the area.

In Shipshewana, you discover peacefulness you never thought existed. The Amish lifestyle is about simplicity and that’s reflected in best things to do in Shipshewana.

Amish horse wagon by corn field
An Amish horse-drawn vehicle.

E. Cleveland, Ohio

  • Driving distance: 216 mi / 348 km
  • Driving time: 4 h

Fully relaxed and ready to go it’s time to travel back to civilization. The Heartland part of the road trip finishes off with a stop in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Cleveland, you find the over 100 years old West Side Market, with vendors selling bread, cheese, meats, baked goodies and more. It’s constantly named among the best food markets in America and it’s great fun to explore its tastes.

Another great place to visit with fantastic tastes is Little Italy in the eastern side of Cleveland. In Little Italy, you find interesting art galleries and, of course, restaurants serving delicious Italian food.

West Side Market
West Side Market in Cleveland.

Part 3: Northeastern USA (blue on map)

The road trip now continues with its third and final part. It’s time to discover the Northeast region of the US.

America’s Northeast is a great contrast to the Wild West part of the San Francisco to New York itinerary.

It includes Upstate New York stops at Niagara Falls and Corning. And then the road trip continues through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to reach the final destination on the itinerary, New York City.

A. Niagara Falls, New York/Ontario

  • Driving distance: 216 mi / 348 km
  • Driving time: 3.5 h

At the border between the United States and Canada you find Niagara Falls. Visiting Niagara Falls is a magnificent experience. Niagara Falls has the highest flow rate of all waterfalls in North America and it’s just as impressive as you can imagine that it is.

The falls are best seen from the Canadian side in the town of Niagara Falls. Great ways to explore the falls when visiting are by going to the overlooks, take a boat tour and see after dark light shows and fireworks.

See the falls from the overlooks

One of the best things about Niagara Falls is that it’s so easily accessible. From your hotel you can walk down to the overlooks and just be amazed by the views. It’s easy and you don’t have to pay a dime for it. And just seeing Niagara Falls is one of the most memorable things to do when driving from San Francisco to New York.

Niagara Falls overlook
Niagara Falls overlook.

Experience Niagara Falls by boat

With a boat tour you get to see Niagara Falls from the water surface. And that perspective is very hard to beat. You can go out on the water from either the US or the Canadian side, but have in mind that boat tours don’t run during the colder months of the year.

Misty Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls.

After dark light shows and fireworks

When the evenings come at Niagara Falls you shouldn’t think that you no longer can enjoy the falls. Because every evening hundreds of LED lights across the Niagara Gorge turn the falls into a light masterpiece. If you want to make a visit extra special you can book a Niagara Falls fallsview hotel and watch the lit up falls from there.

Fireworks is also a proud Niagara tradition and they are set off from within the gorge. Shows are held throughout the year but they are more frequent in the summer than in the winter.

Niagara Falls light show
The light shows at Niagara Falls.

B. Corning, New York

  • Driving distance: 148 mi / 238 km
  • Driving time: 3 h

After Niagara Falls the itinerary continues with the rich tradition of glassmaking in Corning, New York. And Corning, also known as America’s Crystal City, is the perfect stop between Niagara Falls and New York City.

The city has a long tradition of glassmaking. The best way to explore the rich heritage is to go to Corning Museum of Glass. It’s the largest museum of glass art and artifacts in the world. Discover 35 centuries of glass art, from ancient to contemporary. And the glassblowing demonstrations held at the museum are amazing.

A gaffer is a master glassblower, and the name of the historic district in Crystal City is very suitingly called the Gaffer District. In the cozy district you find shops, galleries and restaurants in an incredibly charming small town setting.

The art of glassblowing
Learn more about how to make glass in Corning.

C. New York City

  • Driving distance: 249 mi / 401 km
  • Driving time: 4.5 h

Congratulations, you have made the drive across America from San Francisco to New York City.

In the city that never sleeps it’s easy to keep busy. There is so much to do and the city is constantly evolving which means that you always find something new to try. A good start to a NYC visit is to tick off a few of the classic places to explore.

Brooklyn Bridge has become a symbol for NYC. Put on your favorite walking shoes and walk over the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. From the bridge you get a good look at the Manhattan skyline.

And if you need a break to unwind from the hectic city life there’s no better place to go than to Central Park. In Central Park you easily find a good spot to recharge.

But maybe the most famous symbol for New York is the Statue of Liberty. It used to greet all the new visitors who came by boat to New York. Nowadays more people arrive by plane than by boat, but still the beloved statue peacefully watches over New York City.

Statue of Liberty during cross country road trip
Statue of Liberty.

San Francisco to New York drive FAQ

How long is a road trip from San Francisco to New York?

This loaded itinerary is 3382 miles (5443 km) long with a driving time of 59 hours, excluding stops along the way. Prepare for a major drive across a continent, from one great ocean to another.

Where should I stop on a road trip from San Francisco to New York?

Some of the most popular stops between San Francisco and New York are Twin Falls, Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone NP, Mount Rushmore, Badlands NP, Madison County, Chicago, Cleveland and Niagara Falls.

How much time do you need for the San Francisco to NYC road trip?

To keep a nice balance between driving and sightseeing, we recommend allowing 4 weeks or more. With a total driving time of 59 hours, you drive on average 2 hours a day if you have a full month to complete the journey.

Can you take the San Francisco to NYC road trip in just three weeks?

If you only have three weeks, you have to drive roughly 3 hours a day on average. It’s doable but means less time to explore everything there’s to see along the way.

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