Best U.S. Roadtrips: 4 Great Drives
Every state boasts at least one distinctive road that tells a story about that place and its people. Most can be driven from start to finish in a day or two. Other famous historic roads actually still cross broad swatches of the country and can take weeks to travel. Here are a few of our favorites for great multi-state road trips.
The Mother Road is America’s most romanticized classic road. One of the greatest joys of this 2000+ mile journey from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California is the ‘50s time-warp you’ll experience via the many kitschy roadside attractions, old diners, and motels that crop up in the middle of nowhere (often marked by huge elaborate neon signs)— as well as the seemingly endless but never boring "get your kicks on Route 66" nostalgia that is inseparably part of this road’s ethos.
Only scattered segments of the old highway remain, but the remnants epitomize the classic American road trip. One of the longest surviving stretches of Route 66 starts in Arcadia, Oklahoma, just northeast of Oklahoma City (while you’re here, look for the round red barn, a terrific little Route 66 museum and gift shop) and ends in Stroud, Oklahoma.
The drive in New Mexico between Gallup and Grants across the Zuni and Navajo Nation Indian Reservations (on what’s now Highway 53) is also wonderful. Other high points include The Grand Canyon; the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
Route 66 is not shown on modern maps. Before you set off on your journey, visit National Historic Route 66 Foundation to download meticulous turn-by-turn directions for the entire route.
Pacific Coast Highway
One of the country’s most scenic drives, this two-lane highway runs about 1,500 miles from the northwest tip of the United States at Olympic National Park almost all the way to the Mexican border. It’s a feast for the senses, passing by (and through) forests, wilderness preserves, farmland, California wine country, and spiffy little seaside towns, and hugging gorgeous stretches of the coast.
A few caveats: the highway can get crowded—especially during the summer months—and drivers are often so amazed by the views that they forget to keep their eyes on the road. Drive carefully.
PCH highlights include redwood forests of Northern California; Big Sur (California); the views on the road between Florence and Lincoln City (Oregon) and from the scenic outlook at Cape Perpetu (just south of Yachats in Oregon); Hearst Castle in San Simeon (California); Point Lobos State Wildlife Reserve (just south of Carmel, California); and California’s Carmel Valley vineyards (esp. Bernardus Winery and Talbotts Vineyards).
The Pacific Coast Highway is easy to follow; it’s marked on maps as Route 1 in California and Route 101 farther north.
Great River Road
The 3,000+ mile Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from its start as a cold, tiny, crystal-clear stream in northern Minnesota to its warm muddy merger with the Gulf Of Mexico in Venice, Louisiana.
Created in 1938 from a jumble of local-, state-, and federal roads, it’s a picturesque and varied journey (parts of the route are comprised of well-maintained dirt and gravel roads) passing through forests, prairies, swamps, tiny towns, and bustling cities. Travelers have many opportunities to experience America’s own music (the blues, jazz, zydeco, and rock-n-roll were all born along this highway) and sample unique regional tastes—wild rice and walleye in Minnesota, Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches in Iowa, artisanal cheese in Wisconsin, BBQ in Memphis, tamales in the Delta, and, of course, Creole and Cajun cooking in Louisiana.
Highlights along the Great River Road include the headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota; Memphis, Tennessee (especially Sun Studios and Beale Street); The Mississippi Delta (especially Clarksville, Mississippi for blues fans); Vicksburg, Mississippi (for antebellum architecture afi cionados); and New Orleans, Louisiana.
If you’re planning a trip along the Great River Road, check out The Mississippi River Parkway Commission for more information.
U.S. Route 1
The northernmost part of what’s now U.S. Route 1 dates back to at least 1636—when it took four days to make the 100-mile journey from Philadelphia to New York City. Today, this 2,425 mile circuit links Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, traveling through a good chunk of America’s history.
The road takes travelers though colonial New England, on to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C, then onto the US’s oldest city (St. Augustine, Florida) and the thoroughly modern multicultural Miami, ending in ironically iconic Key West. Route 1 has some spectacular scenery (even the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia/northeastern North Carolina is startlingly charming)—but it isn’t always pretty, passing through plenty of urban blight and moldering towns that time forgot. That said, it’s an endlessly fascinating highway—every bit of it has a story to tell.
The best sights along Route 1 include the Maine coastline; Okefenokee Swamp (Florida); the Florida Everglades; the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys; the Masonic temple in Alexandria, Virginia; Washington D.C’s museums and monuments; the Old Port section of Portland, Maine; New York City; and Old Town in St. Augustine.
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I once moved from California to Washington with my sweetheart and drove up the coastal highway to get there. It was a week-long road trip...we don't want to be in a hurry when driving a route as beautiful as this. Just north of San Francisco is Point Reyes National Seashore. This is a divine and inspiring place worth exploring. Redwood National Park in the north of California and Astoria, Oregon along the Columbia River are two other places we enjoyed some fabulous time in. I mention only three places here, but truly every stretch of road along that coast stands out in my mind as remarkable.
Andrew Van Winkle
One you can add to the list is the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 2003 we drove from New Orleans to Washington DC, joining the parkway in North Carolina after wandering through coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, western Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. From there we used the Blue Ridge Parkway as our guide, leaving it to visit or stay in small towns and the occasional city en-route. Near the end of the trip we slipped across to Norfolk via Richmond and up to Washington via Delaware.
A memorable trip through a lot of your history and some wonderful scenery.
PS We also drove Big Sur earlier on that trip; it was interesting but a little underwhelming after our Great Ocean Road. Sorry about that
Cheers, Alan, Australia
We've got Route 1 on our list! I love opportunities to travel overseas, but appreciate the fact that there is PLENTY to see and experience right here in the good ole US of A.
I think you should add US 50 to your list.
There are no coast to coast highways on your map and this would be a good one.
I've been wanting to combine Route 66 and Pacific Coast Highway for awhile...I have no idea how long it would take but its def on the bucket list