Planning Your Cross-Country Road Trip From Chicago to San Francisco

August 22, 2021
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There’s only one thing we love more than a long-distance drive—and that’s a long-distance drive that’s loaded with unforgettable destinations! From nature and national parks to museums and hidden gems, the places on the way from Chicago to San Francisco are a delightful mix of fun, enrichment, and exploration. Keep reading to see what we mean! 

Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium

📍 Omaha (NE)

National Leader in Animals Conservation and Research

3701 S. 10th Street | Deer Park | www.omahazoo.com

Omaha is about seven hours west of Chicago, and it makes for an ideal first stop on your way to San Francisco. As Nebraska’s biggest city, Omaha is filled with awesome attractions, some of the most popular of which are the Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens, Heartland of America Park, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, and the Joslyn Art Museum. But, one place that you definitely don’t want to miss in Omaha is the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, one of the top-rated zoos—not only nationally but also internationally. 

With nearly 200 acres of exhibits, trails, and gardens to explore, the Henry Doorly Zoo is a paradise for both animal lovers and nature enthusiasts. Tigers, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, lions, monkeys, cheetahs, lemurs, and zebras are just a few of the animals that you’ll find at the zoo. Meanwhile, sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, penguins, and more can all be seen at the aquarium. You’ll have several options when it comes to food at the zoo, and refreshments that range from full meals to quick snacks can be found at the stands, restaurants, and cafes located throughout the zoo. (Hours and admission prices are seasonal, and you can find more information on the zoo website.) 

Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area 

📍 Ogallala (NE)

Family Fun at Nebraska’s Largest Reservoir 

1475 Highway 61 N. | North of Ogallala |  www.outdoornebraska.gov 

Lake McConaughy is around five hours west of Omaha, and it’s the perfect place to take a break from the car, get some fresh air, and stretch your legs. The Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area spans 40,000 acres and over 100 miles of shoreline, and fishing, swimming, camping, and picnicking can all be enjoyed in the park. (Some of the fish that are in the lake include walleye, channel catfish, Northern pike, wiper, and smallmouth and white bass.) 

If you’re interested in learning more about the area and its history, you can stop by the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center and Water Interpretive Center, located south of Kingsley Dam on the highway. Here, you’ll find interactive exhibits, aquariums featuring local marine animals, and a theater that shows educational films. (The visitor center is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm during the summer and from 8 am to 5 pm during the off-season.) 

Denver Art Museum 

📍 Denver (CO)

Free Admission for Visitors 18 and Under

100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway | Civic Center of Denver | www.denverartmuseum.org

A little over three hours southwest of Lake McConaughy (and around eight hours from Omaha), Denver is a can’t-miss destination when driving west from Chicago. In addition to being Colorado’s largest city, Denver is also the state capital, and, needless to say, it offers visitors a wide range of choices in terms of attractions. Some of the most-visited places in the Mile-High City include the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Zoo, the Molly Brown House Museum, Larimer Square, the RiNo Art District, the Colorado State Capitol, and Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater. Another attraction in Denver that’s worth checking out is the Denver Art Museum, one of the biggest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast. 

With a collection that encompasses over 70,000 pieces of art, the Denver Art Museum is as diverse as it is expansive. From paintings, sketches, and photographs to engravings, pottery, and textiles, the work on display at the Denver Art Museum showcases a variety of mediums, styles, and cultural traditions. In addition to the museum’s permanent collection, it also hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions that explore all sorts of forms and topics. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm (with extended hours on Friday), and admission is $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students, and free for kids 18 and under. 

Museum of the West 

📍 Grand Junction (CO) 

Immerse Yourself in Local History

462 Ute Avenue | Downtown | www.museumofwesternco.com

Close to four hours west of Denver, Grand Junction is an eclectic city that’s brimming with Coloradan charm. Like most of the state’s cities, Grand Junction provides visitors with plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation: Just northeast of the city, you’ll find James M. Robb Colorado River State Park—meanwhile, Colorado National Monument lies slightly to the west. In the city itself, a couple of the leading attractions include the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens, Eureka! McConnell Science Museum, and the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area. But, if you’re curious about some of the heritage surrounding this region of the country, be sure to stop by the Museum of the West, a learning center dedicated to the history and culture of the American West. 

Part of the Museums of Western Colorado, the Museum of the West is a wealth of information and artifacts relating to the Western United States, particularly the Colorado Plateau. Archeology, geology, natural history, and the evolution of western culture are all primary themes that you’ll find at the museum, and you can even take in the area’s striking scenery when you climb the museum’s observation tower, the top of which is further enhanced by additional exhibits and informational displays. 

Zion National Park

📍 Springdale (UT)

Hike Through Natural Wonders

1 Zion Park Boulevard | State Route 9 | www.nps.gov

About six hours southwest of Grand Junction, Zion National Park is one of Utah’s most famous attractions, and you don’t want to pass up the chance to stop there on your way to San Francisco. Known for its sandstone cliffs and canyons, Zion is comprised of a patchwork of extraordinary sights and geological formations, like The Narrows, Angels Landing, Kolob Canyons, Weeping Rock, and the Emerald Pools. Hiking, canyoneering, backpacking, and rock climbing are all popular activities to enjoy at the park. 

Despite its arid landscapes, Zion is home to a number of species of wildlife, including mule deer, foxes, bighorn sheep, rock squirrels, mountain lions, and ringtail cats. The park boasts a long history of human activity, and you can learn all about the Native American tribes—as well as the subsequent American settlers that later took the land from them—when you visit Zion’s Human History Museum, located near the park’s south entrance. 

Springs Preserve 

📍 Las Vegas (NV)

Multifaceted, Kid-Friendly Attraction and a Vegas Must-See

 333 S. Valley View Boulevard | Westside | www.springspreserve.org

Around three hours southwest of Zion National Park, Las Vegas is another place on the drive to San Francisco that warrants a stop for sure. Nicknamed “the Entertainment Capital of the World,” Vegas is a city where excitement is waiting for you around every corner. Among Vegas’s best-known attractions are the Las Vegas Strip, Fremont Street, the Neon Museum, and the Mob Museum. But, if you’re looking for a place that’s entertaining for visitors of all ages, the Springs Preserve, just west of Downtown Vegas, is pretty hard to beat. 

A 180-acre space that contains gardens, galleries, museums, and walking trails, the Springs Preserve has everything from live animals to historical artifacts. Major components of the preserve include the Origen Museum, the Nevada State Museum, a botanical garden, a butterfly habitat, and natural habitats. 

Death Valley National Park 

📍 Beatty Junction (CA)

The Biggest National Park in the Contiguous United States

California Highway 190 | Death Valley | www.nps.gov

Death Valley National Park is about two hours northwest from Las Vegas, and at 3.4 million acres, it’s the country’s largest national park outside of Alaska. Hiking, backpacking, camping, and biking are among the top outdoor activities that park-goers engage in while visiting Death Valley, and because the park has such versatile geography, there are a number of natural landmarks that make sightseeing and photography equally popular. 

Some of Death Valley’s best-known features include Badwater Basin, a salt flat that’s the lowest point of elevation in North America; Devils Golf Course, a plain of jagged salt crystal formations; Zabriskie Point, a scenic viewpoint; and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a sprawling dune field that was featured in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. While you’re exploring Death Valley, stay on the lookout for some of the park’s inhabitants, which include bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, desert tortoises, and more! 

Forestiere Underground Gardens

📍 Fresno (CA)

Subterranean Courtyard Built By Hand in the Early 1900s
5021 W. Shaw Avenue | West Side | www.undergroundgardens.com

Don’t worry—we’re almost there, but we have one last stop for you before you get to San Francisco. Around five hours west of Death Valley National Park and about three hours southeast of SF, Fresno is a delightful city that’s at the center of everything in California: LA, Sacramento, Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and, of course, San Francisco are all a short drive from Fresno. A few of Fresno’s main attractions include the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Shinzen Japanese Garden, Fresno Discovery Center, and the Fresno Art Museum. But, if you want to see something truly extraordinary, there’s no better place to go than the Forestiere Underground Gardens, a California State Historic Landmark that’s also included on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Built in the beginning of the 20th century by Baldassare Forestiere, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are an architectural and artistic wonder that you have to see to believe. A work-in-progress for over 40 years, the gardens consist of arches, passageways, patios, and trees, all 20 feet beneath the earth’s surface. Forestiere used only a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow to craft this underground labyrinth, which was modeled after the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, near where he grew up in Sicily, Italy. The gardens are open seasonally, and the standard tour season is from April to November. No reservations are needed for tour groups with fewer than 15 people, and each guided-tour lasts around an hour. 

What’s Waiting For You in the City By the Bay… 

San Francisco is among California’s top travel destinations, and with so much to see and do, it’s not too hard to understand why. Some of the city’s most popular attractions include Union Square, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Painted Ladies, Golden Gate Park, the Aquarium of the Bay, and Lombard Street. But, whether you hit up the mainstream highlights or discover your own diamonds in the rough, one thing’s for sure: Golden Gate City will steal your heart!

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