Short drives, big vacations: 5 prime summer road trip ideas

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Summertime and road trips have always been a perfect match—windows down, your favorite playlist on, and the car packed with loved ones in anticipation of a new adventure. The pandemic saw the revival of the classic American road trip, which will continue to be a go-to travel option for families, couples, and solo explorers as summer approaches. In fact, our summer survey found that 41% of Americans who have traveled during the pandemic still favor the scenic route and aren’t planning to fly to a vacation destination this summer.

While you daydream about which car games you’ll play (slug bug, anyone?), buckle up for a tour of our top five road trip destinations. And, to steer you in the right direction, each of these hotspots still has plenty of summer vacation rentals available and are within easy driving distance of major U.S. cities. So time to fuel up and get ready for your next big vacation.

1. Panama City Beach, Florida

5 hours from Atlanta, Georgia

Featured vacation home: Laguna Loafin’

Nestled in the panhandle of Florida’s famed Emerald Coast, about halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee, Panama City Beach is the quintessential beach destination for major land-locked cities like Atlanta, Orlando, and Nashville. Lovers of warm weather, wildlife, and water sports will appreciate all that Panama City Beach has to offer, from fishing to surfing to sunbathing. If you don’t mind a little heat, late summer is the perfect time to visit for those looking to get away from the crowds—the beach is quieter, while attractions are still in full swing.

2. Hilton Head, South Carolina

4 hours from Charlotte, North Carolina

Featured vacation home: Sandpiper

Take a ride along the southeastern coast to find the family-friendly Hilton Head Island and see why it was voted the #1 island in Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. This low-country island truly has something for every traveler, whether you’re looking to relax on a pristine stretch of beach, play an award-winning golf course, or sightsee at iconic lighthouses. If you really want to embrace the road trip theme on your vacation, Hilton Head is also just under an hour’s drive to the charming city of Savannah, Georgia.

3. Gulf Shores, Alabama

3 hours from New Orleans, Louisiana

Featured vacation home: West Side Cottage

This part of the Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the best beaches in the country, as visitors and locals alike well know, making it one of the top vacation spots in Alabama. With six miles of sugar-white sand and warm gulf waters, you can bask at the beach all day, explore Dauphin Island, or spend a day at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Once you’ve worked up an appetite from a day of sun and fun, we recommend indulging in Gulf Shores’ thriving seafood scene and taking in its laid-back vibe.

4. Rockaway Beach, Oregon

2 hours from Portland, Oregon

Featured vacation home: Cheri's Oceanfront Getaway

The drive from Portland to Rockaway Beach is a full adventure in itself with worthwhile stops along the way, like Tillamook State Forest. After cruising out on Highway 26, Rockaway Beach welcomes you with dramatic views nestled between the Coast Mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. This historic beach town offers more than an endless coastline, with prime fishing charters to reel in a fresh catch, hiking trails among the largest western red cedars on the coast, and the perfect vantage points to look over the ocean—you may even spot some marine life.

5. Chelan, Washington

3 hours from Seattle, Washington

Featured vacation home: Ravens Den

Last, but certainly not least, is the magical destination of Chelan, Washington, located right on the shore of beautiful Lake Chelan. Dubbed Washington’s playground, Chelan and neighboring towns like Manson offer access to nearly any outdoor adventure imaginable, like water sports, scuba diving, hiking, golfing, and more. The can't-miss attraction in Lake Chelan is taking a day trip on the historic ferry, Lady of the Lake, to the tiny town of Stehekin. Located on the northern end of upper Lake Chelan, the quaint town is only accessible by boat, plane, or foot, and is surrounded by the picturesque Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.

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