Cross country San Francisco to New York drive through the Wild West

  • Post last modified:April 5, 2021
  • Reading time:25 mins read
Cross country San Francisco to New York drive through the Wild West

The amazing cross country San Francisco to New York drive takes you from coast to coast through rich and still unexplored regions. Discover the culture of the Wild West and the seemingly endless open spaces in the Heartland of America. This road trip takes you to small towns, old saloons and impressive nature that people often just fly across.

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San Francisco to New York guide

You find the destinations on the itinerary marked out on the San Francisco to New York road trip map below.

  • Total driving time: 59 h
  • Total distance: 3382 miles (5443 km)

San Francisco to New York part 1: American Wild West (yellow on map)

Everyone knows about the American Wild West. Still it’s often looked over 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 real men and women figurating in town in cowboy boots and hats.

Our starting point is San Francisco in California. Enjoy what San Fran has to offer before the trip into the Wild West starts with stops at 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. Road trip starting point in San Francisco, California

Exploring San Francisco is a great way to start off a cross country road trip. Here you among other things can see the Golden Gate Bridge, hang out at Fisherman’s Wharf and tour the historic prison of Alcatraz.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. And that for good reasons.

Officially the color of the bridge is called international orange. It was hand-picked to make the bridge easy to spot even in fog and as it was thought to complement the natural surroundings.

And we must agree that the choice of color has been nothing but a great success. The bridge itself is impressive, but it also fits in among the green hills and sometimes foggy weather at the location.

Golden Gate Bridge at start of road trip route
Golden Gate Bridge.

Good times at Fisherman’s Wharf

After exploring Golden Great Bridge it’s a good idea is to head to the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf. Here you find restaurants, shops and an in general chill vibe.

At Pier 39 you need to watch out for 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
Noisy sea lions at Pier 39.

Tour the maximum security prison of Alcatraz

From the waterfront you can see Alcatraz Island. There you can visit the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary which was in use from 1934 until 1963.

The maximum security federal prison kept famous criminals behind bars. But it turned out that it was possible to find escape ways even from Alcatraz, as the escape of 1962 showed.

Alcatraz Prison of cross country road trip route
The historic prison of Alcatraz.

B. Feel the silver rush in Virginia City, Nevada

  • Driving time: 4 h
  • Distance: 224 miles (360 km)

After saying goodbye to Alcatraz we travel northeast to the second destination on the itinerary for the San Francisco to New York drive. Virginia City in Nevada was once 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 area created millionaires. People came from near and far to mine silver and gold. For a time this area was called the richest place on earth. And the wealth had an important role in funding the building of San Francisco and even 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, Virginia City is one of the best preserved old mining towns in the West. Here you find many buildings from the 1800s still standing.

And even though the original boom since long is gone, there’s a certain liveliness with numerous saloons, shops, museums and things to do.

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 Virginia City.

Road trip route through Virginia City
Welcome to the West!

C. Experience the amazing nature at Twin Falls, Idaho

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

The city of Twin Falls is the perfect place to base yourself when you discover two of the most jaw-dropping places in Idaho on the San Francisco to New York drive. These beautiful places to explore are the Shoshone Falls and Snake River Canyon.

Shoshone Falls

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 for swimming.

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

Snake River Canyon

A popular way to explore the Snake River Canyon is to enjoy the Snake River Canyon Trail.

As it follows the canyon rim it provides viewpoints of waterfalls, canyon walls and the monumental Perrine Bridge which you surely will want to capture with your camera. It looks almighty at a level of 486 feet (148 m) above the canyon floor.

Another interesting spot along the trail is the Evel Knievel jump spot. Here he tried, but failed to, jump across the canyon. But in hindsight you could think he was lucky to only break his nose!

If you are in for an adventure on the water you can rent a kayak and work your way all the way up to the base of Shoshone Falls.

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

D. Go out on the lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

  • Driving time: 5 h
  • Driving distance: 254 miles (409 km)

The road trip from San Francisco to NYC continues east into Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park is the first, but certainly not the last, national park on the cross country itinerary from San Francisco to New York.

Grand Teton National Park is living a life in the shadow of its northern neighbour Yellowstone National Park. Although not as huge as Yellowstone, Grand Teton is as charming and a must visit when you’re in the area on the San Francisco to New York drive.

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.

Two highlights in the park not to be missed when the road trip takes you to Grand Teton National Park are the lakes and the old historic settlement.

Visit the 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

Go to Mormon Row Historic District in Grand Teton National Park to see preserved homesteads and barns in the foreground to the Teton Range. The buildings were put up by Mormon settlers that began to arrive in the 1890s.

This place is listed on the national register of historic places. But you 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 within Mormon Row.

E. Sit back and watch the show in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

  • Driving time: 1 hour
  • Driving distance: 30 miles (48 km)

It’s time to introduce yourself to the older sibling of Grand Teton National Park. And after some long drives on the San Francisco to New York road trip itinerary it’s nice with such a short drive 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 on the drive from San Francisco to NYC. Luckily, 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.

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

Old Faithful putting on a show

Sit down and enjoy the 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.

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

Lamar Valley with the bisons

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 cars are obligated to yield!

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

F. Welcome to the home of Buffalo Bill in Cody, Wyoming

  • Driving time: 2.5 h
  • Driving distance: 97 miles (156 km)

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 on the San Francisco to New York drive. But the travel time of 2 h each way just to get into the center of the park is exhausting.

Therefore it’s optimal to split them up and fully focus on Cody after your Yellowstone visit on the drive from California to New York City. Afterall, 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 to a rodeo.

Learn about the Wild West

Buffalo Bill Center of the West is 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.

Here you learn more about Wild West in general, with one of the sections all focused on Buffalo Bill himself.

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

Go to 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. See the famous president faces of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

  • Driving time: 6.5 h
  • Driving distance: 366 miles (589 km)

Up next on the San Francisco to New York road trip itinerary is some very familiar faces. It’s time to meet the old national heroes of Mount Rushmore.

The faces of the four presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were carved into the granit of Mount Rushmore in the years from 1927 to 1941.

When you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial on the San Francisco to New York drive you can come and see and learn more about them. The presidents chosen for the sculpture represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the US.

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

Every night during late spring, summer and early autumn a lightning ceremony is held at the monument. That way you can even enjoy the sculptures after dark.

And 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.

Where to stay when you visit Mount Rushmore

The small town Keystone is fantastically located for your Mount Rushmore visit. From Keystone you can get to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in under 10 minutes.

Hill City is also a small town, but bigger than Keystone. From Hill City it’s about 20 minutes to Mount Rushmore.

Alternatively, you can stay in Custer which roughly is 30 minutes from the memorial. It’s another small town but bigger than both Keystone and Hill City.

All three towns are good options to stay in with Wild West feel about them. You can’t go wrong here!

H. The perfect hiding spots in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

  • Driving time: 1.5 h
  • Driving distance: 75 miles (121 km)

Now it’s time for the third national park on the cross country itinerary for the drive from San Francisco to New York. Badlands National Park is the last destination on the road trip’s Wild West stretch.

For some more Wild West feel and amazing nature Badlands National Park is an obvious stop along the cross country road trip route. Here it’s easy to tell that this place once was a great place for the outlaws to hide.

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 makes 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 praire dogs even have their own town. In Robert’s Praire Dog Town you don’t have to be lucky to spot a praire dog.

Praire dog in Robert´s Praire Dog Town.
An excited praire dog in Robert’s Praire Dog Town.

Read more: Visiting the Badlands National Park in South Dakota >>

San Francisco to New York part 2: Heartland of America (red on map)

As we leave the Badlands we’re about to begin the second stretch on the road trip itinerary from San Francisco to New York. 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 on the drive from San Francisco to New York with stops in Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Shipshewana and Cleveland.

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

A. Feel the spirit of the Heartland in and around Omaha, Nebraska

  • Driving time: 6.5 h
  • Driving distance: 451 miles (726 km)

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 can 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.

Here you can stretch your legs while you discover a new favourite of the animal kingdom.

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

A highlight in the zoo is Lied Jungle, where you find apes having a blast and 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 the southwest United States.

When you continue the journey towards the next stop, Des Moines, just a small detour can take you to Elk Horn. The little village of Elk Horn on the prairie of Iowa is an old Danish settlement. And here you find many traces of Scandinavia.

The most obvious one is an authentic Danish windmill that symbolises the small town. As Elk Horn is located pretty much halfway between Omaha and Des Moines, it makes up the perfect lunch stop. If you feel adventurous, why not try a Scandinavian specialty?

Windmill in Elk Horn
Windmill in Elk Horn.

B. Don’t miss the Bridges of Madison County as you approach Des Moines, Iowa

  • Driving time: 2 h
  • Driving distance: 134 miles (216 km)

Des Moines is often overlooked for other places to visit. But, it shouldn’t be because it’s 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 on the San Francisco to New York drive. Here you find Downtown Farmers Market, Des Moines Art Center and a diverse selection of restaurants.

However, maybe you afterall 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 is less than an hour away from Des Moines, so it’s a great day trip if you don’t want to rush through on your way from Omaha to Des Moines.

Madison County bridge
A covered bridge in Madison County.

C. Get the mandatory picture of the bean in Chicago, Illinois

  • Driving time: 5.5 h
  • Driving distance: 333 miles (536 km)

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. Wow!

To unwind after the thrill of Willis Tower a good option is to go to Millennium Park. Go for a walk in the green park just like the locals. And 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 on the San Francisco to New York City road trip.

Millennium Park Chicago
Millennium Park in Chicago.

D. Amish life in Shipshewana, Indiana

  • Driving time: 2.5 h
  • Driving distance: 130 miles (209 km)

From a big city to more relaxing time on the countryside. Next stop on the drive from San Francisco to New York is an Amish community in Indiana.

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.

Here you discover peacefulness you never thought existed. Don’t expect stores and dinner places to be open til late. Instead go for a scenic walk or just do nothing until it’s time to call it a day. Remember there is a day tomorrow as well!

The Flea Market in Shipshewana is the region’s largest and well worth a visit. Don’t miss it if you visit a market day!

Amish horse wagon by corn field
Typical Amish horse wagon.

Read more: Amish life in Shipshewana, Indiana >>

E. Stop by for a delicious treat in Cleveland, Ohio

  • Driving time: 4 h
  • Driving distance: 216 miles (348 km)

Fully relaxed and ready to go it’s time to travel back to civilisation on the San Francisco to New York road trip itinerary. 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. Come and see what it’s all about when you’re in town!

Another great place to visit is Little Italy in the eastern side of Cleveland. Here you find interesting art galleries and restaurants serving delicious Italian food.

West Side Market
West Side Market in Cleveland.

San Francisco to New York part 3: Northeastern USA (blue on map)

The road trip now continues with the third and final part. It’s time to discover the Northeast region of the US on the San Francisco to New York drive.

And America’s Northeast is probably probably the greatest possible contrast to the Wild West section of the road trip.

This part includes Upstate New York stops at Niagara Falls and Corning. Then the road trip continues through Pennsylvania and New Jersey to reach the final destination of the itinerary, New York City.

A. The power of Niagara Falls, New York/Ontario

  • Driving time: 3.5 h
  • Driving distance: 216 miles (348 km)

At the border between the United States and Canada you find Niagara Falls. It has the highest flow rate of all waterfalls in North America and is 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. There you find various ways to explore the wonder of Niagara. Three good ways to explore the falls 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.

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 take a boat from either the US or the Canadian side, but have in mind that they don’t run during the colder months of the year.

Misty Niagara Falls
The adoreable 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. 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.

Read more: The ultimate guide for visiting Niagara Falls >>

B. Glassmaking tradition in Corning, New York

  • Driving time: 3 h
  • Driving distance: 148 miles (238 km)

After Niagara Falls the drive from San Francisco to New York 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 and rich tradition of glassmaking. The best way to explore the heritage when you visit 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. Here 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. Rounding off the road trip in New York City

  • Driving time: 4.5 h
  • Driving distance: 249 miles (401 km)

Congratulations, you have made the drive across America from San Francisco to the city that never sleeps!

In New York City it’s easy to keep busy. There is so much to do and the city is constantly evolving which means that you always can find something new to try.

But if you haven’t been to NYC a good start is to tick off a few of the classic places to explore.

The beloved Statue of Liberty

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.

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

A walk on Brooklyn Bridge

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

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge with view over Manhattan.

Central Park to relax in the buzzing city

If you need a break to unwind from the hectic city life there’s no better place to go than to Central Park. Here you can find a good spot to recharge.

Central Park making New York City green
Central Park, the green oasis in New York City.

San Francisco to New York drive FAQ

Below you find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the road trip from San Francisco to New York.

How long time should you have to make the coast to coast drive from San Francisco to New York City?

This is a major road trip across a continent, from one great ocean to another. Total estimated driving time is 59 h and the driving distance is at 3382 miles (5443 km). With a driving time estimation of 59 h for the road trip route, a month or more to do it is preferable. If you have a month then you will drive about two hours a day on average.

Can you make the cross country road trip in just three weeks?

If you only have three weeks you will have to drive about 3 h a day. It’s doable but means less time to explore everything along the way. Therefore a month is recommended for the drive itinerary from San Francisco to New York, but it is possible in shorter time if you’re a fine with driving a lot in a short time window.

How did you calculate the driving time from San Fran to NYC?

Google Maps is used to calculate the estimated driving time by taking the shortest amount of time from point A to point B and rounding upwards to the next half hour. Remember that stops on the way from San Francisco to New York not are included in the driving time.

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