Starter Guide to Shoulder Season Road Tripping in the US

WORDS BY LAURA HUGHES

In partnership with Merrell

Summer road tripping gets a lot of hype, but there is much to love about hitting the road during shoulder season. However, there are additional factors to consider when planning road travel during shoulder season—which is why we compiled this starter guide to help you get out there during that quieter time between summer and winter.

What shoulder season can look like — photo by Laura Hughes near Moab, Utah

What shoulder season can look like — photo by Laura Hughes near Moab, Utah

Why Road Trip During Shoulder Season?

  • Your own schedule might be more open. This isn’t true for everyone, but between professional and personal commitments, it’s not uncommon for the summer to be incredibly busy, which means there is less time to get away. More time during shoulder season equals more time to spend on the road.

  • There are typically less crowds. Shoulder season is a great time to head out if you’d like to avoid traffic at popular National Parks, get permits with greater ease, make reservations, find parking, and so on.

  • It’s easier to hike and do other outdoor activities. Beating the heat of summer by road tripping in the fall is a great way to get out on the trails without drenching yourself in sweat just for standing at a vista point. Also, less sunburns!

  • Popular destinations will often have discounts and lower prices. If you’re trying to visit an often-frequented tourist hot spot, waiting until shoulder season might help you get more for your money. Between summertime and winter  holidays, there is often a lull in business which means you could find great deals on accommodations, activities, and more, just because you’re there during shoulder season!

  • Fall colors. Last but not least in any way, the fall colors in different regions of the States are all uniquely breathtaking and something to spend some time soaking up.

4 Shoulder Season Road Trip Routes in the US

If you’re feeling inspired to head out on the road-- whether it’s for a weekend or a week-- the following routes come highly recommended by our team from our own firsthand travels on them:

NORTHWEST

Bellingham → Ross Lake → Leavenworth via Washington’s Highway 2

Diablo Lake is one of several stunning locations on this route— photo by Laura Hughes

Diablo Lake is one of several stunning locations on this route— photo by Laura Hughes

“This route both hugs the coastline of the Puget Sound and dips heavily into the Central Cascades of Washington, making it a true sea-to-summit type of adventure!

From Bellingham, you can take in all of the beautiful fall colors along Chuckanut Drive, then continue into the Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and visit North Cascades National Park (one of the most underrated National Parks in the States!).

From there, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan are both within a reasonable distance and afford hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and beautiful views all around. You’ll also want to spend a good deal of time camping in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and visiting the adorable Bavarian-themed mountain town of Leavenworth, which sits just outside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (home to many stunning larch trees turning golden in the shoulder season). All around, this route will drench you in the full PNW fall experience.”

— Laura Hughes, Podcast Host/Producer of Women on the Road

NORTHEAST

White Mountains → Portland, ME → Acadia National Park via New Hampshire/Maine Rt. 302 & Maine’s Route 1

Fall colors in the White Mountains of New Hampshire — photo by Gale Straub

Fall colors in the White Mountains of New Hampshire — photo by Gale Straub

“Peak leaf peepin’ draws crowds to the Northeast in autumn, but the right timing affords fall multi-colored magic in the mountains and golden light on the shore. If you can, time the Crawford Notch into North Conway via Rt. 302 portion for weekdays and there will be plenty of room on the hiking trails.

Heading south to Portland, you’ll pass through the Bridgton lakes region of Maine, tracing Highland, Long, and Sebago Lake. The latter is the deepest lake in the state (316 feet!). Portland was named 2018 restaurant city of the year by Bon Appetit, so if you’ve been looking to splurge on a special meal out, it’s a perfect pit stop before heading north on route 1 to Acadia National Park. Don’t worry if you can’t time the foliage for the park, the deep velvet burgundy colors of the marshes surrounding the shore will leave you satisfied.”

— Gale Straub, Founder & Podcast Host/Producer of She Explores

WEST COAST

Bishop → Mammoth → Lake Tahoe via California’s Highway 395

A trail rimmed with golden aspens in Bishop — photo by Noël Russell

A trail rimmed with golden aspens in Bishop — photo by Noël Russell

“Mono County is a wildly diverse and stunningly beautiful region located along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The countryside is woven with rivers and creeks while hidden hot springs and sparkling lakes dot the landscape.

The Sierra Nevada range towers to the west as you follow it along your drive north through planes and passes, begging you to take frequent stops for the sake of adventure.

Trailheads abound along this route and you’ll pass some of the best outdoor adventure spots in the west: the towns of Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, Bridgeport and South Lake Tahoe. Take in stunning fall colors and don’t forget to pack a bathing suit so you can soak up lingering warm days in the Golden State.”

— Noël Russell, Brand Partnerships

SOUTHWEST

St.George → Page → Sedona via Utah and Arizona’s Highway 89

Cinnamon striations of sandstone layers near Escalante— photo by Laura Hughes

Cinnamon striations of sandstone layers near Escalante— photo by Laura Hughes

“This route seems to radiate warmth all year because of the rich colors of the landscape—and by the time you reach Sedona it likely will still be pretty warm to soothe whatever weather the rest of the route has held.

Detours off Highway 89 include Grand Staircase-Escalante, Lake Powell, Marble Canyon, Navajo slot canyons (like the famed Antelope canyon!) near Page, the Grand Canyon, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon, and miles of trails in the Coconino National Forest surrounding Sedona. All of these places grow quieter as the weather cools.

Be prepared for a variety of weather as the elevation changes gradually but dramatically (especially near the Grand Canyon, which can see snow in October). And be ready to stop frequently along the way because there’s so much to see. Even as it gets chilly, the colors and textures of this slice of the Southwest seem even sweeter without the spring/summer crowds.”

— Hailey Hirst, Digital Editor

What to Pack for Your Shoulder Season Road Trip

  • Layers, layers, layers. Merino wool and insulated puff jackets are our favorite for this time of year because they keep you warm but are still relatively lightweight.

  • Hats, scarves, gloves, and socks. Because nobody likes cold hands, ears, necks, or feet!

  • Waterproof trail shoes. You may not need these on your trip, but it’s important to have them in case a storm passes through.

  • An extra blanket. It doesn’t hurt to bring one extra so you’re totally prepared. We are also big fans of electric blankets you can plug in to your vehicle to heat your bed at night or to make your drive next-level cozy.

  • Solar powered, battery-operated, or USB-chargeable lights. With daytime hours shrinking during shoulder season, bringing lights is not only a practical decision, but if you opt for more than just a headlamp it can celebrate the season in a fun way.

  • Reuseable, insulated mug. This is a must-have in our opinion! Not only does it cut down on waste, but reusable mugs with insulation are wickedly effective, so you can make hot drinks in the morning and keep them at the perfect temperature well into the afternoon.

  • Sunglasses. That’s shoulder season for you! There might be storms but it just as easily could be bright and sunny out. 

Outfitted for unpredictable conditions in a Merrell  Ridgevent Thermo insulated jacket  and  Ontario Mid Waterproof hiking boots .

Outfitted for unpredictable conditions in a Merrell Ridgevent Thermo insulated jacket and Ontario Mid Waterproof hiking boots.

Cozy socks for cold nights.

Cozy socks for cold nights.

Warming up with a hot drink in an insulated container.

Warming up with a hot drink in an insulated container.

Other Considerations to Make for Shoulder Season Road Tripping

  • Bring cash for taking hot showers. It’s less likely that you’ll want to jump in a lake to freshen up during shoulder season road trips. The reality is that you’re going to value a hot shower more than in the summer, so treat yourself to what you need to rinse off or warm up by heading to a rec center, gym, campground, bike shop, or hostel and paying for a hot shower.

  • Don’t let the rain in. Nothing ruins a road trip faster than getting dripped on during an overnight rainstorm. Make sure your vehicle is sealed properly if you’re going to sleep in it, and if you’re tent camping, make sure you have a good rain fly.

  • Make it easy to have a warm beverage. Getting a small camp stove or other portable camp cooking systems to make hot water on the go is a life saver when the temperatures drop. If you can, bring one with you on the road and use an insulated mug or water bottle to keep warm water on hand for hours.

  • Assess your tires before getting on the road. A change in elevation can make a huge difference between completely driveable conditions, and snow or ice. Be prepared when you hit the road for the possibility that even if your ultimate destinations don’t expect snow, you still might br driving through it along the way.

  • Batteries die more easily in the cold. If you’re bringing gear with you (including your cell phone), know that in cold weather your batteries will die faster, so if you don’t have another power source with you, make sure to factor in time to charge your devices while you’re on the move.

  • Be prepared to change plans based on weather. Depending on where you’re traveling to and how much you want to face rain or even mild snow, you might find yourself changing your route or activities to accommodate your needs. But that’s okay! Being flexible is a skill when it comes to keeping road trips fun.


This article was produced with support from our brand partner Merrell, who believe the outdoors is for everybody and every body. The traveler featured in these photographs is wearing the Ridgevent Thermo insulated jacket and Ontario Mid Waterproof hiking boots.

Hailey Hirst