A Cross-Country Road Trip from Chicago to Grand Canyon
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- Chicago, IL
- Des Moines, IA
- Lincoln, NE
- Denver, CO
- Rocky Mountains
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
- The way back
- Roadside assistance
This road trip takes you from Chicago, Illinois to Grand Canyon, Arizona, with some stops in Des Moines, Denver, and the Rocky Mountains on the way. The attractions range from family-friendly campgrounds to impeccable modern Asian fusion restaurants, to spiraling rock formations.
You may be ready to throw your stuff in the trunk and hit the road with enthusiasm, but hold up––make sure you’ve invested in the right car insurance to cover you in any unexpected incidents.
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Now, buckle up for a fun Chicago to Grand Canyon road trip!
Start in—Chicago, IL
Chicago, Illinois brings together the diversity of an urban setting with some Midwestern charm. Though the city began as an industrial transit center, today it offers abundant opportunities for shopping, dining, and entertainment.
What to do
Some prime picture spots include Navy Pier, with its Coney Island-style attractions, and Millenium Park, home of the giant reflective icon, the Bean.
Head over to Shedd Aquarium to see an incredible selection of marine life exhibits, which are seamlessly integrated into the historic Georgia marble of the building.
Willis Tower––formerly known as Sears Tower––was the tallest building in the Western hemisphere for more than 40 years. Visitors are welcome to ride up its 1,450 feet to catch views from the Skydeck.
As with much of the Midwest, sports are big here: fans can catch a Cubs, Bulls, White Sox, or Blackhawks game while they’re in Chicago.
Where to eat
Chicago is home to world-class dining experiences. Three-Michelin-star establishment Alinea prides itself on providing impeccable service and presentation, even when it comes to carry-out.
Puerto Rican chefs have cultivated the jibarito, a beef sandwich with fried plantains instead of bread, available to try at Jibaritos y Mas.
Rica Arepa serves up cheesy, toasty Arepas paired with fresh fruit juice or Venezuelan soda.
For a low-key eatery, try Lou Mitchell’s diner, which has been in operation since 1923. Choose from an all-day breakfast and lunch menu with all the classics: silver-dollar pancakes, jumbo omelets, skillets, burgers, and more.
Of course, Chicago is most notable for Chicago-style pizza and hot dogs. While Chitown natives will all have their own opinions, Lou Malnati’s is hard to beat for pizza (there are at least 10 locations). Notably, juicy dogs can be found at Portillo’s (multiple locations), Wolfy’s in West Ridge, or Morrie O’Malley’s near Sox Stadium.
MORE: Road trip games
Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois
Stop in––Des Moines, IA
Travel time: 5 hours, 333 miles
If you enjoyed the bustling atmosphere in Chicago, don’t worry––there’s more where that came from. While our first stop is not as big as Chicago, it is the Midwest’s fastest-growing city: Des Moines, Iowa.
Des Moines draws in professionals as a hub of the insurance and financial industries. See for yourself what compels them to stay.
What to do
If you loved (or missed) Navy Pier in Chicago, there’s another chance for you to try some big amusement rides at Adventureland.
If you’d like to exchange a car ride for a bike ride, Des Moines is the place to do that, with 800 miles of biking trails. Cycle, walk, or run along the High Trestle Trail for some interesting bridge architecture.
Des Moines also hosts a highly rated farmer’s market downtown, which you can peruse on Saturdays from May to October.
Make sure you don’t miss Pappajohn Sculpture Park, where you can view some larger-than-life attractions. This art collection ranges from colorful pop art to a giant spider of especially unsettling quality.
We also recommend taking a short trek an hour west of Des Moines to Audubon, named after James Audubon, birdwatcher extraordinaire.
In Audubon, you can visit Albert, the world’s largest bull statue. His own park is fittingly called Albert the Bull: World’s Largest Bull Park and is open to campers. Travelers of all ages can also enjoy the James Audubon walk, a path lined with recreations of the birdwatcher’s famous canvas prints.
Where to eat
The Des Moines food scene includes local breweries, smokin’ BBQ, and some true wild cards.
Burger fans looking for a unique experience should try the Zombie Burger and Drink Lab, which welcomes you into its self-proclaimed “post-apocalyptic chic” venue.
Try Smokey D’s BBQ for a tried-and-true selection of meats. This restaurant holds winning titles from over 90 state competitions.
You can grab a behind-the-scenes tour after your meal at Exile Brewing Co, whose on-tap selection is simply…unique. I’d bet even ardent beer fans haven’t yet tasted “2020 Jesus on a Forklift” or “Ogre at Simcoe Pass.”
Where to stay
As you head in the direction of the pioneers of old, you may wish to stay in a rustic log cabin. Short of finding an actual cabin, you can opt for the Stoney Creek Hotel, a three-story motel where each room features a unique and cozy color scheme.
If you’re looking for an eclectic, upscale option, try the Des Lux or Surety Hotel in downtown Des Moines.
MORE: Road trip essentials
High Trestle Trail, Des Moines, Iowa
Stop in––Lincoln, NE
Travel time: 3 hours, 200 miles
Our cruise to the canyon continues in the capital of Nebraska. To reach Lincoln, you’ll cross the Mississippi and Platte Rivers.
Home of the Cornhuskers, Lincoln prides itself on its football team and hometown friendliness. But Lincoln is more than a dry prairie town.
What to do
Several of Lincoln’s interesting attractions can be found at the University of Nebraska campus.
Visit the Lincoln Quilt Museum to catch an impressive collection of stitchwork, including American frontier-inspired works and quilts that date back to the 1700s.
Catch a Cornhuskers game at Memorial Stadium to feel the energy of the collection of fans known as the “Sea of Red” when they assemble.
Or, take a tour of the Nebraska Capitol to see neoclassical white-figure floor murals, shimmering vaulted ceilings, and an impressive congressional library.
Where to eat
Lincoln boasts a diverse collection of international cuisine.
The inventive restaurant Copal Progressive Mexican Cuisine offers fried duck tamales, a loaded chicken tinga huarache, and hot queso with garlic croutons.
For unforgettable Asian cuisine, try Hiro 88. Let the gently smiling Buddha statues welcome you into this dark-lit dining space that offers elegant arrangements of sushi and meat and vegetable plates.
For a classic steak and whiskey combo, look no further than Single Barrel. Wilderness Ridge (located at the golf club of the same name) offers a classic lodge atmosphere with antler chandeliers and a dark wood interior, complementing the black tinge of char from the grill.
Travelers with a sweet tooth won’t want to miss the Alice in Wonderland-inspired Rabbit Hole Bakery in the historic Haymarket district. After a day in the sun, head to 402 Creamery for a premier selection of ice cream from scratch.
Where to stay
You can find many reliable big-name hotels here like Embassy Suites and Hyatt Place Lincoln if you want to stay close to museums and entertainment venues.
For a private getaway, choose Annabelle Gardens or Westview B&B for small cottages complete with hot tubs.
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Memorial Stadium at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska
Stop in––Denver, CO
Travel time: 7 hours, 485 miles
We’ve now reached Denver, Colorado, the Mile High City. Denver attracts vacationers and residents in all seasons of the year for its proximity to the mountains. The town itself, though, has no shortage of places to explore.
What to do
One of Denver’s most iconic sites is Red Rocks, located at the west edge of town. This amazing Aztec sandstone formation is the site of many community events, most notably concerts and yoga sessions.
Be sure to travel to some of Denver’s magnificent parks to experience the local lifestyle. Lookout park has great views of downtown from afar. History buffs may enjoy seeing Buffalo Bill’s Grave and the Buffalo Bill Museum here.
Don’t worry if you’re not big on the outdoors, though. At Summit Lake Park you can drive a car up to the peak of Mount Evans.
On the other hand, hiking and backpacking enthusiasts won’t want to miss the REI flagship store. Maybe stock up on some outdoor swag before hitting the Grand Canyon?
If you’re curious about Denver’s real estate, wander through the LoHi and RiNo neighborhoods, some of the most sought-after locations in the city.
Where to eat
Locals rave about Avanti, a classic food hall in the LoHi neighborhood. Big groups will love the different restaurant options, including pizza, sushi, and French street food.
Immerse yourself in the cozy natural atmosphere of Forest Room 5, where guests can sit around giant fire pits and even roast s’mores.
There are so many fun breweries in the RiNo neighborhood, including Our Mutual Friend and Ratio. To get a drink in an elegant atmosphere, go to the Terminal Bar at Union Station downtown.
For breakfast, check out the buttery sandwiches at Denver Biscuit Co or the variety of morning options at Snooze.
Where to stay
Campers should check out the Chief Hosa Campground just outside of Denver. Spots are open for RVs or tents, and wifi is available (though you should probably put down your phone and look at the stars).
The Art Hotel Denver, designed by Hilton, features a reflective exterior and unique building shape.
To stay near a shopping district, check out the Maven Hotel at Dairy Block (an interesting day destination in its own right) or Moxy Denver Cherry Creek (for a modern feel without excessive prices).
Red Rocks, Denver, Colorado
Stop in––The Rocky Mountains
To traverse Colorado, you have three basic options.
Grand Junction, Co
Take I-70 West and 191 south. You’ll basically follow the state perimeters of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah before you reach Arizona.
If you take this route, you can stop in Grand Junction, CO to sleep at a hotel.
Poncha Springs, CO
Take 285 south to 160 west, which takes you through the eastern Rockies down to the New Mexico border.
You can take a detour to see Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Harvard, Mt. Antero, and the ghost town of St. Elmo. You’ll also pass through the Gunnison National Forest.
If you take this route, you can stay at a hotel in Poncha Springs, CO
Chimney Rock, CO
Take I-25 south to 160 west. This way you’ll skirt the mountains, but you’ll add at least an hour to your drive.
You’ll still pass through the San Juan National Forest. You can stop and camp at Chimney Rock.
San Juan National Forest, Chimney Rock, Colorado
Arrive at––Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Phew…you’ve made it to Arizona. 25 hours of driving have led you to this moment (and it’s more than worth it). Enjoy your views of the Grand Canyon’s gorges, shaped over millennia by the Colorado River, that captivates the world.
Some people might not know that there is an entire Grand Canyon Village in the park, where you can eat, shop, and sleep.
What to do
Explore the park, of course! The Canyon is divided into the South and North Rims, with many other subdivisions in between, and covers nearly 2,000 square miles of land.
There are various ways to traverse the park, including hiking, boating, riding a mule, or taking the Grand Canyon Railway.
The breathtaking Skywalk operates at Grand Canyon West, run by the Hualapai Tribe headquartered in nearby Peach Springs.
As you explore, look out for North American wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, California condors, and ring-tailed cats.
Where to eat
Grand Canyon National Park maintains some great restaurants, from no-fuss dining halls to a steakhouse.
Hermit’s Rest Snack Bar offers food and gifts within the Grand Canyon Historic District, which preserves living arrangements from the nineteenth-century Wild West.
For travelers looking for a challenge, you must hike all the way to the bottom to find Phantom Ranch Canteen.
Where to stay
Most lodgings within the park are beneath the South Rim. You can find simple campgrounds or high-end hotels angled for premier viewing from your room.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The way back
You can retrace the same route you took, perhaps choosing a different option to get through Colorado.
Or, you can stay to the south, moving from the Grand Canyon to Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Springfield, St. Louis, and then Chicago.
St. Louis, Missouri
Jerry’s roadside assistance program
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