Looking to fulfill that dream of the Great American Road Trip? These are 10 routes you absolutely cannot miss.
Of all the wonderful traditions that define America, none combines our love of automobiles with our wandering spirit like the road trip. Loading up the car, cranking the music, and pointing the hood towards the horizon is to pay tribute to the nation's long, proud history of travelers. This land was founded by wanderers, be it the settlers who made their way west across the plains, the colonists who sailed across the Atlantic, or the prehistoric tribes that wandered across the Bering Strait during the last ice age.
And while our future may sometimes seem more and more likely to be filled with self-driving cars capable of shuttling us from A to B, it's hard to imagine that this autonomous future won't have room for the all-American road trip. Even in a gearhead's nightmare scenario where all hands-on driving winds up banned in the name of saving lives, there'll still be a place for long sojourns to parts known and unknown alike.
The road trip will likely remain a staple of life here for as long as these United States remain bound together by the Constitution (and maybe even longer...). So in honor of that, we at The Drive decided to put together a list of the top 10 road trips found in America.
To come up with this list, we went back through our collective life experiences and scoured the depths of every travel guide we respect, searching for road trips within these 50 states that could hold their own with any on the planet. They stretch far and wide across the United States, representing nearly every type of landscape and scenery this nation has to offer. These 10 road trips include cities and countrysides, oceans and deserts, mountains and plains...and of course, a fair number of fairly entertaining stops to hit up along the way.
Pacific Coast Highway – California
Even if you've never driven the Pacific Coast Highway, you probably recognize it. This winding, ocean-front road has made an appearance in more films, TV shows, and commercials than perhaps any other stretch of asphalt. The road stretches for more than 650 miles along the California coast, from the redwood-packed town of Leggett in the north to the famous Orange County in the south. You'll want to stop along some of the bigger cities along the way—San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles all lie along the route—but it's also worth popping in at some of the smaller towns and sites on the road, like William Randolph Hearst's epic palace San Simeon, better known as Hearst Castle.
The whole route will take at least two days, but it's easy to burn through an entire week exploring the PCH if you so desire. Be warned, though: Traffic in certain parts can be frustrating in the summer, and the occasional landslide has been known to shut parts of the road down.
When it comes to getting your kicks on a road trip, there's no highway like Route 66. Carving a southwesterly course from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, this highway—known as the Mother Road and the Main Street of America—officially dates back to 1926, but parts of it date back to army routes from the 19th Century. Sadly, the road no longer exists in its complete form (interstate highways have replaced much of it), but it's still possible to retrace much of the classic route.
As it predates the expressways, the remains of Route 66 runs directly through countless towns large and small. Stop in Springfield, Illinois, and see the streets where Abe Lincoln cut his teeth as a politician; swing by the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, to see the fleet of Caddys diving into the dirt; pull off at Meteor Crater in Arizona to see where Earth was hit by a giant chunk of rock 50,000 years ago. Or stop anywhere else along the way to stare at the scenery: the red rocks of the Southwest, the endless grasslands of Oklahoma, the mighty, muddy Mississippi.
The whole course runs around 2,450 miles, so plan on taking at least five days for the journey. You can hit Route 66 anytime of year, but the drive is liable to be less fun in the winter—at least, until you make it to the Southwest.
Blue Ridge Parkway – Virginia and North Carolina
If you're looking for a relaxing road trip through Dixie, few drives can beat the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from outside of Richmond, Virginia down to near Asheville, North Carolina. This road isn't just a scenic drive—it's a route down the spine of the central Appalachians, bridging Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park with a course revealing some of the most gorgeous rolling hills and gentle mountains on the planet.
Don't expect to set any speed records on the parkway; the speed limit never goes higher than 45 miles per hour. But taking it slow gives you a better chance to ogle the natural wonder that surrounds you. The road winds through numerous tunnels with insides of bare rock; between them lie expansive vistas, myriad mills, and more bridges than you can count. (There are 168, for what it's worth.)
Summer and fall are the best times to hit the road—the foliage of autumn making the latter season a particular delight. The whole Blue Ridge Parkway runs about 470 miles from end to end, so plan on needing a couple days to complete the journey. But it's sure to be a trip that produces some views you'll remember forever.
The Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway – Colorado and Utah
If Jurassic Park still holds a special place in your heart, this road trip is a must-do at some point in your life. The Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway traces a loop through some of the most storied lands in paleontology, where some of the best-known dinosaurs on the planet were pulled out of the Mesozoic rock. Starting at Dinosaur National Monument, head south on Colorado 64, then Colorado 139, until you hit Dinosaur Hill and the Dinosaur Journey Museum in the town of Fruita. From there, head west into Utah on state route 128 until you hit Moab, then venture up US 191 to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, where you can take a self-guided tour of an area where fossils of dinos like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Camarasaurus dot the landscape.
Then head up to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry to see one of Earth's largest collections of dino fossils from the Jurassic era before venturing further north to the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which has life-sized models of a dozen and a half dinosaurs—including Utahraptor, which inspired the raptors of Steven Spielberg's cinematic masterpiece. From there, it's a quick drive east to Dinosaur Quarry, where you can gaze over thousands of fossils, before heading back into Colorado and closing the loop.
The whole trip runs around 480 miles, but expect to spend at least three days navigating the highways and byways if you want to see it all. And if anyone in your road trip crew isn't as enthusiastic about dinos as you are, there are plenty of jaw-dropping Western vistas along the way to keep 'em occupied.
New York's Finger Lakes
Most of New York state's well-known attractions lie along the broad eastern flank of the state, whether it's the Adirondacks in the north to the mighty metropolis of New York City in the south. But the Empire State's quieter western end has its fair share of charm, too. Few areas in America can compare to the pastoral beauty of the Finger Lakes region, an area famous for its wineries found in a rough triangle between the small cities of Rochester, Ithaca, and Syracuse. Starting in the latter, head down Interstate 81 to Cortland, the closest incorporated city to the state's center, before diverting onto state highway 13 and following it southwest to Ithaca, where you can walk the campus of Cornell University.
From there, head north a few miles on route 89 to Taughannock Falls State Park, home of a mighty gorge that plays host to the towering titular waterfall, which sends water cascading down a 215-foot drop—the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies. Then keeping going northwards on 89, where you can eat and drink your way along some of the area's best distilleries, wineries, and eateries. (Say, maybe our future of self-driving car road trips won't be so bad.) Once you've reached the northern end of Cayuga Lake, swing west through Seneca Falls, then south along highway 96 to hit the quaint towns of Ovid and Interlaken, before swinging over to the coast of Seneca Lake and following route 414 down to one of the most iconic spots in American motorsports: Watkins Glen.
At around 150 miles, this road trip can easily be knocked out in a day. But the Finger Lakes are filled with enough interesting places to stop and explore that it's best to allocate at least two so you don't have to rush. The trip is best done in summer, when the weather is nicest, or fall, when the autumn foliage is in full effect.
Highway 61 / The Blues Highway – Mississippi and Tennessee
If you're looking for a road trip that all but comes with its own playlist, it's hard to beat the stretch of U.S. Highway 61 roaming between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee—commonly known as The Blues Highway. This road served as the central artery for blues musicians; many of the greatest names in the style's history—Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker—either traveled the road or lived somewhere along it, while Bob Dylan chose it as the basis for the iconic 1965 album, "Highway 61 Revisited."
Head north out of Vicksburg and roll along the four-lane road through the delta until you hit Clarksdale, where fabled bluesman Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49; legend has it the Prince of Darkness still walks those streets, looking to make a trade. Hellish encounters aside, Clarksdale is worth the stop to see the Delta Blues Museum alone—and since you're stopping anyway, might as well hit up one of the town's many clubs to hear some live music.
From there, it's less than a couple hours to Memphis—which is good, because you'll want to spend some time in this western Tennessee town. Hang a right just before you hit Interstate 55, and you'll find Elvis Presley's fabled Graceland estate. Once you tear yourself away from the clashing fashions of The King's home, drive a few minutes up the road to Beale Street, the downtown stretch where artists like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison all cut their recording teeth at Sun Studio.
The whole trip—which is good any time of year but could be a tad steamy in summer—covers around 225 miles, but it's best experienced over two days, with an overnight stay in Clarksdale. After all, The Blues Highway may be many things...but it's not made to be covered quickly.
Texas Hill Country
The word "Texas" may not bring to mind great roads, but the rolling hills that give the south-central part of the state their name are wound tight with the sort of driving paths best experienced in a sports car.
Start your Texas Hill Country road trip in Austin, an off-beat town that sometimes seems to have more in common with hipster enclaves such as Brooklyn or Portland; whether the folks who populate Texas's weirdest city are your cup of tea or not, however, it's worth taking some time there to check out the broad array of live music to be found. (And should you stay past dark, be sure to watch the flight of hundreds of thousands of bats that live in the world's largest urban bat colony beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge.) Then head west on U.S. Highway 290 to Johnson City, hometown of President Lyndon B. Johnson and home to Pedernales Falls State Park, a perfect spot for hiking or relaxing on the broad, shallow rocks of the Pedernales River. From there, drive west and a little south to the small town of Hunt, a mecca for kayakers and summertime swimmers thanks to its bevy of swimming holes, before venturing further west to the town of Rocksprings. If you missed the bats in Austin (or if you were just blown away by them), head to the nearby Devil's Sinkhole, a natural limestone cave from which around 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats depart at night.
From Rocksprings, head south on state route 55 to Uvalde, considered roughly the southern edge of Texas Hill Country and hometown of Lincoln spokesman Matthew McConaughey, before making a break east towards San Antonio. Towards, not to; bang a left onto state road 173 at Hondo to make your way to Bandera, known as the Cowboy Capital of the planet. The area is packed with working dude ranches where you can experience the cowpoke life for yourself, as well as the Frontier Times Museum, with a quirky collection of Western culture-related artifacts. And from there, it's just an hour to San Antonio, where you can tour The Alamo and stroll (or bar-hop) along the San Antonio River Walk, which runs like a miniature Venice half a level below the streets of the city.
The whole route runs about 370 miles, so plan on taking at least two days if you want to stop and see the sights. The Texas Hill Country road trip can be done any time of year—though summers can be hot, as it is Texas—but it's particularly beautiful in the spring, when the rains bring the wildflowers into bloom.
I-90 Across America
This northerly route across the United States may not be as well-known as some of the trips on this list, but that's not for lack of spectacle. On this interstate running from Boston to Seattle, you'll run across some of the most varied scenery America has to offer. You'll see the verdant forests of the Northeast, three of the Great Lakes, the northern plains, numerous Indian reservations the mighty Rocky Mountains and the noble Cascade range. Interstate 90 a good fit for travelers who grow nervous when they're out of urban areas for long, as it passes through lots of cities, like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago. Outside of those spots, though, it's a whole lot of nothing—just glorious vistas and open road as far as the eye can see. (You should take a detour over to Mount Rushmore, though—how often are you in South Dakota?)
Traversing all of Interstate 90 means traveling about 3,000 miles, so plan at least six days to cover the whole route. And while some of the road trips here are good any time of year, this highway is best covered in summer. Winters can be roughy pretty much along the entire route...at least, until you hit Seattle.
The Great River Road – Minnesota to Louisiana
While many of the great cross-country road trips travel east–west across America as if following the spirit of Manifest Destiny, this route goes north to south, tracing the path of the Mississippi River. Starting up near Grand Rapids, this route follows one small highway after another down through Minneapolis–St. Paul, through the quiet rural areas of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin into the farmlands of Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri until you hit St. Louis, where the town motto is "Come for the Arch, stay for the barbecue." Indeed, there's good eatin' all the rest of the way down, with Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans all popping up as you and the river both head towards the Gulf.
There are markers signifying the path along much of the route—look for the road signs bearing a green ship's wheel—but if you ever feel like you might have lost track of the route, just check if you can see the Mississippi. The whole Great River Road runs nearly 3,000 miles if you follow it to its fullest extent, but the flexible nature of this road trip—many of the attractions require a slight detour—lets you control your distance more than a lot of other itineraries on this list. Still, plan on spending at least five days to make the most of this riverside route—especially if you do it in the summer, which is the best time to make the trip.
Highway 1 through the Florida Keys
While this road may not offer much in terms of driving excitement, Highway 1 through the Florida Keys does offer a glimpse of the tranquil, oceanfront existence found at the edge of the Caribbean. Before you even climb into the car at Key West all the way at the island chain's end, dip your toes on the balmy water at the island's southernmost accessible point, just 90 miles or so to Cuba, then head over to the Ernest Hemingway House, a former residence of the renowned writer that's been transformed into a museum and is populated with the polydactyl descendants of his cats.
Grab a slice of Key Lime pie at one of the numerous places selling the tasty dessert, then hop in the car and head north on U.S. Highway 1, known for the 127-mile stretch of it that runs through the Keys as the Overseas Highway. Be prepared to take it slow; the road has just one lane in each direction for most of its path through the islands, so it's best to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride. After 40 miles, you'll hit the Seven Mile Bridge, known from appearances in films such as License to Kill and True Lies; shortly after the bridge ends, you'll pass by the Dolphin Research Center, a marine mammal sanctuary where visitors can learn about and interact with dolphins. Hop back on the highway for another hour and you'll hit John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can scope out the area's active coral reefs from the comfort of a glass-bottomed boat, or dive beneath the surface for a closer look while snorkeling or scuba diving.
The balmy tropical climate of the Keys is suitable for humans anytime of year, but it's best appreciated in the colder months as a refuge from the chillier temps found basically everywhere else in America. The whole trip runs about 125 miles, making it easy to knock out in a day. (Once you make it to Key West, of course.)
This story originally appeared on The Drive.