The best road trips in the US help you discover this vast and dramatically diverse country. America has so many quaint towns, historical landmarks, pristine beaches, and acres of countryside waiting to be discovered, so staying in a single destination for a full trip rarely makes sense.

    Famous journeys across the States have been immortalized in songs and movies, and it’s easy to retrace those journeys. Ride through the birth of modern music, the western migration, or even the very birth of the country itself, as we know it today. With this guide to popular US road trips, you and your travel companions can experience the best of America on the open road.

    1

    Pacific Coast Highway, CA

    From San Francisco to San Diego

    Hugging the California coast for practically the whole journey, this is one of the most scenic ocean drives in the world. It’s best to drive north to south, so you get a full view of the Pacific Ocean without oncoming traffic blocking the view.

    Starting from San Francisco (you could choose to start from Seattle if you have the time), highlights along the Pacific Coast Highway include the hippy town of Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, and the most dramatic part of the trip, Big Sur. This 70-mile strip of rugged, isolated coastline is breathtaking, and there are numerous beaches and quaint beach towns to stop and enjoy the relaxed vibe. As you travel south, you will find larger beach resorts around LA, like Santa Barbra and Malibu, before reaching San Diego close to the Mexican border. 

    photo by gamene (CC BY 2.0) modified

    2

    Route 61

    From Nashville to New Orleans

    Known as the “Blues Highway”, this historic highway travels through several cities credited with starting new musical genres. The 816 miles from Nashville to New Orleans passes long stretches of rolling prairies and farmland, but this trip is less about the landscape and more about the vibrant cities you’ll encounter along the way. Blues, jazz, country, and bluegrass were all born in this region, making this drive a trip through the story of popular music.

    Starting from Nashville, head south through Memphis – the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll – and down to the Mississippi Delta. End your trip in New Orleans, in America’s deep south. It’s the home of Creole culture, with a unique cuisine, architecture and culture all of its own.

    3

    New York to Boston (and back again)

    The I-95 and I-91 each pass through fascinating historical sites

    This drive along the north-east coast of America is a lot shorter than many other American road trips (considering the vast size of the country) but is packed with interesting things to see. The route passes many of the most important historical sites relating to the founding of the United States as a nation. You could do the whole drive in around 4 hours, but that would be missing the interesting side trips that make this drive so memorable.

    Leaving NYC, head north to New Haven, home of Yale University. From here, the Interstate highways split, but we recommend heading along I-95, which hugs the coast. The Connecticut countryside is peppered with small towns that give visitors a taste of local life. Stop at Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, and learn about its important role in the Revolutionary War.

    After sightseeing in Boston, return to New York by taking the I-90 inland route, which connects to the I-91. For literary fans, don’t miss a tour of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford. Especially beautiful in autumn, the forests of New England are a photographer’s dream.

    photo by JJBers (CC BY 2.0) modified

    4

    Route 66

    From Chicago to LA

    The legendary Route 66 runs for almost 2,500 miles through the American Midwest.. It is an epic road trip through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, and several other states, passing through many regions seemingly left behind by progress. American diners, motels, and kitsch souvenir stores give you a hit of unmistakeable nostalgia for a forgotten way of life.

    Dramatic highlights stand out from the tumbleweed towns, be it the Grand Canyon, the Chain of Rocks Bridge or Six Flags St. Louis amusement park. The length of the drive, and the diverse scenery along different parts of the journey, make Route 66 a journey of self-discovery as much as a geographical one. If you are pressed for time, you might consider driving only the far western part of the journey, from LA to Vegas. 

    5

    The Southern Pacific Route

    From the Pacific to the Atlantic

    This 3,000-mile journey from one side of America to the other is the ultimate road trip for adventurous souls with at least 2 weeks to spare. The route starts from San Diego and cuts through California, Arizona and Texas in the west, before the Mississippi Delta changes the landscape completely through Louisiana, Alabama and, finally Georgia.

    The Southern Pacific Route passes few big cities and thousands of miles of desert landscape. Some stretches of the route are straight out of a Wild West fantasy, with nothing but cactus plants and a wide, open sky. The rich lands of the Mississippi and the Appalachian mountain range mean the landscape changes dramatically for the eastern half of the journey. It really shows you the diversity and grandeur of America.

    The food you eat will change as much as the landscape, as will the towns you stop at each night. From Texan honky-tonks to Mariachi bands and the Bluesy live bands in the bars and clubs of Alabama, every night is a new adventure. 

    photo by Kevin Dooley (CC BY 2.0) modified

    6

    Blue Ridge Parkway, VA

    A 469-mile road linking several US national parks

    The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile drive that begins in Virginia and winds its way through much of western North Carolina. The headquarters and main visitor center for the parkway are just 6 miles east of Asheville’s city center. The beautiful mountain scenery along the road is breathtaking any time of the year.

    This epic drive takes you through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties, offering scenic lookouts, picnic areas, and hiking trails throughout your journey. You can even stay a couple of nights in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park and enjoy the great American outdoors.

    7

    Outer Banks, NC

    Great for an epic journey by car and ferry

    The Outer Banks Scenic Byway offers one of the best road trips in the US, combining 138 miles of driving off the coast of North Carolina and even 2 ferries. The entire trip takes 5 to 6 hours, and there’s plenty of accommodation to suit any budget along the way.

    The Outer Banks Scenic Byway takes you to many beautiful coastal villages, islands, and historic landmarks. A must-see during your Outer Banks road trip is the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where aviation fans can learn about the famous brothers’ achievements. Nature lovers can find miles of pristine beaches, state parks, and shipwreck diving sites.

    8

    Oregon Coast Highway, OR

    Ocean-facing highway that’s also known as US Route 101

    The Oregon Coast Highway stretches for around 363 miles along the Pacific shoreline. The coastal highway is also known as US Route 101 and the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway. It connects the northern and southern ends of the state, offering golden beaches, protected dunes, majestic sea stacks, and ocean-facing viewpoints along the way.

    It takes about 8 hours of non-stop driving to cover the entire Oregon Coast Highway, though it’s a good idea to stop by some of the state’s many waterfront towns and cities to really get a feel for the local communities. Lincoln City boasts a 7-mile-long beach that’s great for sunbathing, surfing, and swimming, while Astoria has a charming historic district with Victorian homes and heritage museums.

    9

    Newport, RI

    Explore iconic landmarks along Ten-Mile Drive

    Newport is best explored via Ten-Mile Drive, which mostly covers the southern coastline of Aquidneck Island. Start your journey on Thames Street and head south towards Ocean Drive, where you'll reach Brenton Point State Park. The 89-acre space is a great place for relaxing and enjoying views of the Atlantic Ocean and Rhode Island Sound.

    Continue your journey to Fort Adams State Park, home to America’s largest coastal fort. Even if you’re not planning to stop by any of Newport’s attractions, a road trip along the Ten-Mile Drive gives you superb views of the coastline, Gilded Age mansions, and sailboats bobbing on the Atlantic.

    10

    Maui, HI

    Epic road trips laden with viewpoints, waterfalls, sea caves, and bays

    Maui is a relatively small island that's great for those embarking on a road trip in Hawaii. There are plenty of places to explore, from verdant rainforests to picturesque white-sand shorelines. Driving around Maui is an adventure in itself, where the scenery out the window can change whenever the odometer rolls over.

    The Road to Hana, or Hana Highway, is one of the best road trips in the US. This 64.4-mile-long stretch is located on Maui’s northeast coastline, connecting the town of Hana with Kahului. Popular stops along the way include the multitiered Pools of Ohe‘o, Garden of Eden, Honomanu Bay Lookout, and Waianapanapa State Park.

    Paul Smith | Compulsive Traveler

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