10 Must Do Road Trips in the USA
By Dejan B.. Published on April 27, 2017
No matter how you prefer to do your road tripping – by car, motorcycle or RV – there are certain routes that call out to you. These are the once-in-a-lifetime excursions that not only give you a glimpse of America, but let you see it with new eyes and a fresh perspective. From the obvious to the often overlooked, here are ten great ideas for satisfying your itchy feet.
Historic Route 66
Perhaps the most iconic road trip in the United States, Historic Route 66 takes you on a nostalgic and eclectic journey of more than 2,000 miles across the Midwest and western states, from Chicago to L.A. While major cities dot the route, it's the small towns, quirky attractions and neon lights that make this journey an endearing trip down memory lane. Route 66 rose and fell with the post-war boom of middle-class tourists and the golden age of a car culture ushered in by a growing highway system. Even though Route 66 was officially decommissioned many years ago, most sections of the so-called "Mother Road" are still accessible and much of its unique architecture and charm has been retained. Many of the mid-20th century landmarks have been preserved and restored, making Route 66 a veritable treasure trove for post-Kerouac travel nomads. It's the closest you'll ever come to turning your GPS into a time-machine, so set your coordinates for Historic 66 and a blast to the pop-culture past.
Pacific Coast Highway
Like Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) has its place in American road trip history. In fact, the two roads are connected by more than history. Route 66 fed into and terminated at Alt 101 – now the PCH – in Santa Monica, and a plaque commemorating the highway's symbolic end stands at the Santa Monica Pier.
Designated an "All-American Road", the Pacific Coast Highway (officially called Highway 1 since a state highway renumbering in 1964) serves as both a scenic route down much of the California coast and an important major thoroughfare in the state's urban areas, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. The most scenic and historic segment of PCH is in the Big Sur Region, a section of the road that opened in the 1930s with the help of New Deal funding that created work projects in the economically weakened states after the Great Depression. There's nothing depressing now about a drive from San Diego to San Francisco. People watch at eccentric Venice Beach, be awed by ocean mysteries at the Monterey Aquarium, grab a selfie before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and conclude the journey with a visit to the famous Chandelier Drive Thru Tree. Restaurants, beaches, parks, attractions and accommodations are plentiful along the 655-mile route, making it the perfect vacation for anyone with a desire to do some "California cruisin".
Note that erosion and maintenance do force frequent closures along portions of SR1 that may create traffic congestion or require travelers to take alternate routes. You can check current highway conditions at Caltrans.
Overseas Highway to Key West
Once a railroad right-of-way for the Florida East Coast Railway, linking Key West to the Florida Mainland, the 113-mile Overseas Highway has been the major artery for vehicle traffic between the two cities since the 1950s. Prior to construction of the Overseas Highway, access to Key West was via a ferry service connecting two road segments – an upper section running through Key Largo and a lower section that joined Key West with the ferry terminal at No Name Key. Primarily two-lanes wide, the Overseas Highway allows travelers to enjoy a leisurely drive and take in spectacular views of the ocean or the shallow, turquoise waters of Florida Bay. The keys, joined by causeways and 42 bridges, are divided into the Upper and Lower Keys, comprised of five regions – Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West. Each region has a unique character, which provides plenty of choices for resort-goers, nature-lovers, fishing enthusiasts, and – of course – the indescribable charm (some may say craziness) of Key West, playfully known as the "Conch Republic". And in the southernmost city in the continental United States, four hours from the mainland, you may think you are in another country. You may not be able to decide whether to enjoy the rich history or the raunchy happy hours – but fortunately in Key West the two go together like sand and sea. The diversity of the Keys allows you to choose a travel experience that meets your lifestyle and budget, from waterfront camping in natural areas like Bahia Honda State Park to enjoying the many amenities of luxury hotels and resorts. No matter which you choose, you'll feel right at home in the Florida Keys.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is Eastern road system that also grew out of national work projects in the 1930s. It is a designated National Parkway and All-American Road and, at 469 miles, it is the nation's longest linear park. Linking the Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its beauty is unmatched. For that reason, it is one of the most visited sites in the National Park System. Winding through Virginia and North Carolina, the route provides visitors with a taste of the Appalachian culture. Along the way, you'll not only see the finest nature has to offer, but you can also get your fill of traditional and crafts, regional music and good old country cooking. Outdoor activities abound, but you may also choose to explore the gem mines and wine trails in the area or visit the many small towns along the parkway. The Blue Ridge Parkway and surrounding areas has long been a draw for motorcyclists and is sometimes called a "motorcycle mecca". Repair shops, motorcycle resorts and other motorcycle-friendly resources are plentiful.
Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota
There's still plenty of places you can travel on a budget, and a road trip through the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota is one that won't break the bank. At the famous Wall Drug, ice water is free and hot coffee is still only five cents! And for a very reasonable vehicle admission, the dramatic scenery and unique wildlife – including bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and prairie dogs – that you'll see in the 243,000 acres that comprise Badlands National Park and the Badlands Loop Road is simply priceless. Nearby, you can spend some time in Rapid City or head toward the Black Hills to see the awe-inspiring rock carvings at Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, see one of the largest free-roaming bison herds in the U.S. in Custer State Park or take in attractions like Reptile Gardens and Rush Mountain Adventure Park. Many festivals and arts venues in the area offer dance, music, theater and other talent throughout the year.
Vermont 22A – A Fall Foliage Drive
Vermont's 22A Highway is a 40-mile route that only takes about an hour to travel by car. But with plenty of sites to see along the way, side trips that will interest the whole family, and absolutely fantastic fall foliage, you'll probably want to clear your schedule for the day. This scenic route is glorious from spring through autumn, with mountain views and quaint small towns like Vergennes – only 1 mile square – where you can explore local shops and restaurants. From Vergennes, you might want to take some time to visit Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury, about an hour away, for an ice cream factory tour and a taste of what it takes to produce euphoric concoctions that respect the earth and the environment. Then, back on 22A, plan to visit several historic sites that let you experience early life in America and natural areas like the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area introduce you to resident and migratory wildlife. You'll keep the camera clicking as you capture pastoral views and herds of grazing dairy cows. Don't miss a glimpse of the area's covered bridges, including a restored 1897 railroad bridge located just off 22A. And with a rich agricultural tradition, you may enjoy seasonal apple or berry picking, or browsing the roadside stands along the route. Drive carefully – especially in the fall when the explosion of color can be distracting. Enjoy the show by periodically pulling off the road. That will allow everyone in the car to savor the scenery safely and attentively.
Coast-to-coast Via I-90
Are you ready to tackle the nation's longest interstate highway? If so, clear your summer schedule, head on over to Boston or Seattle, do a few stretches to loosen up those back muscles, and make your way across Interstate 90. I-90 is a transcontinental highway, stretching from coast-to-coast. From east to west, it will take you from Boston through states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. The total length of the freeway, which was fully completed in 1978 when the east-building and west-building teams met up near Blue Earth, Minnesota, stretches more than 3,000 miles. Because it is a modern highway, the quality of scenery will vary greatly and you will need to exit the highway to visit attractions, eat at restaurants and find accommodations. Depending when you travel, you can experience extreme weather conditions (cold and/or heat), as well as traffic congestion around major urban centers, such as Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Seattle. However, these cities also provide a wealth of attractions and activities for singles, couples and families. Expect a summer road trip to take about 5 days in driving time (one way); plan additional time for sightseeing. If you are traveling with children, plan extra time for rest breaks and allow them ample time to stretch their legs and burn off excess energy. Consider this road trip to be less of a scenic drive and more like an endurance challenge!
Great Lakes Circle Tours
Many people enjoy visiting cities and towns along the Great Lakes, anchored by major metropolitan areas such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Cleveland Ohio. There is no shortage of things to do in these beautiful Midwest cities, and the surrounding parks, amusements and beaches allow escapes from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. However, for those looking for a creative way to take a road trip around the Great Lakes, there's another option. You can literally take a road trip around a Great Lake. In the 1980s and 1990s, regional tourism organizations established Circle Tours around Lake Superior (1,287 miles), Lake Michigan (1,100 miles), Lake Huron (1,059 miles) and Lake Erie (629 miles). While several of the Circle Tours are no longer supported by local organizations and trail signage is missing or in disrepair, the Lake Superior Circle Tour continues to be actively promoted and a published Adventure Guide is available to help you navigate the route. It's a great way for avid road travelers to uniquely experience American and Canadian culture and geography.
Grand Canyon to Moab – A National Park Experience
Along a stretch of 862 miles between Arizona and Utah, outdoor enthusiasts can visit some of the most beautiful and popular National Parks to be found in the American West. Start this road trip with a visit to the mile-deep Grand Canyon, located 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, where you'll immediately inspired by its immensity. You can choose to visit the more accessible and tourist-friendly South Rim, or the more wild and secluded South Rim (open seasonally). The journey continues in Utah, where you can explore the steep cliffs and forest trails of Zion National Park – or take leisurely strolls on easily accessible trails near the visitor center. The relatively quiet Bryce Canyon National Park offers secluded beauty and captivating geological formations. Further down the road, Capitol Reef National Park doesn't offer much water, but it does provide a scenic drive, day hiking loops ranging from 25 to 10-miles roundtrip, and rock domes and cathedrals with millions of years of geological history. Author Edward Abbey called Canyonlands National Park, formed by the Colorado and Green Rivers, "the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth". Short hikes and great views are easily accessible from the Island in the Sky region of the park, located on a mesa 10 miles north of Moab. Finally, closer to Moab, the 76,000 acre Arches National Park features more than 2,000 natural sandstone formations and ten easy to moderate trails. All of the parks offer outdoor enthusiasts with more advanced activities, which may include backcountry hiking, camping and rock climbing. Check each park for activities, regulations and permits.
Willamette Valley Wineries
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "What I do and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes". For the discriminating wine enthusiast, a road trip through Willamette Valley, Oregon's premier wine country is to fulfil a special dream, indeed. Internationally renowned for its Pinot Noir production as well as other cool-growing grape varieties, the 500 wineries in the area are giving California a run for its money – and giving you a great value for yours! From scenic drives to weekend events and unique shops and boutiques, there's plenty to keep you busy when you're not wining and dining your way through the 150-mile long valley stretching from Eugene to Portland, which was designated as the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1984. Exploring the 30,000 acres of Valley's vineyards offers days of recreation, wine routes and inspired restaurants, but you also have easy access to metropolitan Portland, where you can browse the block-long Powell's City of Books or explore the city's museums, zoo, gardens and walking trails. Furthermore, the natural beauty of the region extends to nearby sites like Mt. Hood National Forest, Tillamook State Forest and coastal Oregon.