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12 of the best US road trips

by Staff

America’s wide open roads and expansive landscapes were made for road trips — ideally in a muscle car for those who want to complete the classic picture, although an SUV is more likely to bear the load nowadays. The historic, cross-country Route 66 and Highway 1 on the Pacific coastline tend to grab the headlines, but from sea to shining sea there are plenty of other drives to tackle. Each offers a different slice of the country’s distinctive breed of tourism, whether it’s scenic national parks, charming small towns, zinging cities or surfy, palm-fringed beaches. More often than not, the direct route isn’t the best — these plans offer plenty of options for absorbing diversions. Here are the best US road trips.

1. Rhode Island and Massachusetts: Providence to Provincetown

Length 248 miles
Duration five days
Route Providence – Bourne – Chatham – Provincetown and day trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket

Take this trip at a leisurely pace, heading east out of Providence, Rhode Island, and crossing the Bourne Bridge at Cape Cod to join Route 28, which stretches along the bottom half of the peninsula before it merges with Route 6. The joy of this drive is pulling off into any pretty town, garden or beach that takes your fancy (don’t forget to explore the offshoot Routes 6A and 28A). Regular road-trippers will tell you not to miss Chatham, with its 19th-century lighthouse and incredible sweep of beach, and Provincetown — classy yet eclectic, it’s like Brighton, with a dollop more charm. Take a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard by jumping on a ferry at Woods Hole and see Nantucket by boarding in Hyannis (you can bring the car or join on foot). Pick up a thrift-store brochure and have a rummage in the shops — you’ll find some brilliantly quirky souvenirs.

The lighthouse at Chatham in Massachusetts (Getty Images)

2. Oregon: Portland to Astoria

Length 316 miles
Duration seven days
Route Portland – Yachats – Pacific City – Astoria

Combine crabbing, hiking and kayaking with dramatic rocky shorelines and evergreen forest views on a scenic drive along Oregon’s seaboard, aka “The People’s Coast”. Handily, and unusually for the US, all 363 miles of Oregon’s wild and windswept beaches are free and public. So when you’re not behind the wheel on Highway 101 taking in the scenery, including hills thick with pink rhododendrons in summer and whales in the Pacific in winter, you’re diverting to lighthouses, sleeping in kitsch inns and getting your fingers messy at clam shacks. Initially you’re heading southwest from Portland, pausing after a few hours to stretch your legs on the 804 Trail, a short hike along the shoreline near the town of Yachats, which is also home to indy galleries (don’t miss Earthworks). Then head north along the coast for the towering dunes of Pacific City, winding further still for secret beaches. The most northerly point of this drive is Astoria, a bohemian town with brewpubs and the fascinating Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Best affordable hotels in Portland

Morning light filters in the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area near Yachats (Alamy)

Morning light filters in the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area near Yachats (Alamy)

3. Georgia and the Carolinas: Atlanta to Jacksonville

Length 745 miles
Duration 12 days
Route Atlanta – Blue Ridge Mountains and Asheville – Charleston – Savannah – Jekyll Island – Jacksonville

Beaches, bird-watching and barbecue all feature on this drive through Georgia and the Carolinas in America’s Deep South. Start in Atlanta and head north, to the winding roads to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a segment of the Appalachian range, taking in a riot of wildflowers, waterfalls and twinkling streams as you go. Divert to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, a sprawling late 19th-century chateau-style mansion and pristine gardens built for the ludicrously wealthy art collector George Vanderbilt, before crossing country to Charleston, where historic homes sit alongside new breweries and barbecue joints. Head south, stopping at barrier islands for a stroll or a swim, before arriving in Savannah, a charming small city where towering oak trees are draped in moss and elegant townhouses line pretty squares. The last stretch south, taking in Jekyll Island, is a relaxed finale of seabirds and wild beaches.

Best things to do in the Deep South

The south wing of Biltmore House on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville (Alamy)

The south wing of Biltmore House on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville (Alamy)

4. Florida: Key Largo to Key West

Length 112 miles
Duration four days
Route Key Largo – Stops along the Overseas Highway – Key West

This route is short on driving distances and big on Florida fun. Straight roads and easy navigation make the Overseas Highway, the main road linking Key Largo and Key West, great for stressed-out parents with toddlers or tweens prone to boredom, travel sickness, eye-rolling or, dare we say it, all three. You could do it in a day, or two and a half hours to be more precise — but to make a holiday of it, stretch it out over at least four days. Distractions on the way include kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding over zingy blue water at one of the dozens of postcard-worthy beaches, snorkelling alongside little and large fish in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and a trip to the Coral Restoration Foundation Exploration Center or the Turtle Hospital. Pull off the highway at the simple yet sensational Fish House in Key Largo for baskets of fried fish and fries.

Best family-friendly things to do in Florida

Stand-up paddleboarding at Key West (Getty Images)

Stand-up paddleboarding at Key West (Getty Images)

5. Utah and Yellowstone: Salt Lake City to the national park

Length 450 miles
Duration ten days
Route Salt Lake City – Bear River State Park – Bridger-Teton National Forest – Pinedale – Jackson Hole – Grand Teton National Park – Yellowstone National Park

Head north from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a trip through western Wyoming that doesn’t hold back on views. First up: herds of bison and elk on the plains of Bear River State Park, followed by the snow-topped peaks, towering pine trees and lakes of Bridger-Teton National Forest, a great spot for scaring yourself silly white-water rafting, or taking the more serene decision to relax with some of the best fishing in the state. Detour southeast to Pinedale to paddle a canoe across glacial lakes before tracking back to Jackson Hole for epic stargazing. Marvel at the valleys and peaks of Grand Teton National Park before the finale: Yellowstone National Park. Plan an early-morning visit to the Grand Prismatic Spring, with its rainbow-esque colours, then take in views of the Yellowstone river, which cuts through the treacle-coloured canyon.

Best national parks in the US

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park (Getty Images)

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park (Getty Images)

6. Arizona: Tucson to the Grand Canyon

Length 370 miles
Duration six days
Route Tucson – Phoenix – Scottsdale – Sedona – Grand Canyon via Route 180

Buckle up: Arizona, America’s sixth-largest state, is home to almost 200 mountain ranges and some of the most hypnotising landscapes in America. See a chunk of it by starting south in Tucson and heading north. Your first two stop-offs are Phoenix (the city scenery isn’t that remarkable, but the pizza at Pizzeria Bianco is) and Scottsdale, a quirkier, artsier and smaller city with its luxe yet laid-back hotels, boutique shopping and great hikes along the cactus-lined trails of Camelback Mountain. It’s frequently voted one of the best places to live in America, and in just a few days, you’ll see why. Head north to Sedona, where spiritual types and hippies gather to hike through rust-red landscape to the city’s endless energy vortexes. There are more rocky vistas to entertain you on Route 180 — definitely the more scenic option — before you reach the mighty Grand Canyon, where you can make the most of the surroundings with a stay at a glamping site. Park up and swap your car for a guided 4×4 tour.

Hiking on Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail, overlooking Scottsdale (Getty Images)

Hiking on Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail, overlooking Scottsdale (Getty Images)

7. Texas: Dallas to Austin

Length 1,100 miles
Duration ten days
Route Dallas – Forth Worth – Marfa – Carlsbad Caverns National Park – Big Bend National Park – San Antonio – Austin

Cowboys, country music and President Kennedy’s final stop — whatever you find in Dallas, it’s sure to be all-American. Start your week’s drive in the Big D, and head west to Fort Worth’s Cultural District for museums, theatres and Wild West art and sculpture that evoke the atmosphere of John Wayne movies. Continue taking small roads over rolling plains where you’ll find dusty Texas towns of the kind described in The Last Picture Show and other books by local boy Larry McMurtry. After winding southwest, stop at the arty town of Marfa, before pushing on through the national parks of Carlsbad Caverns and Big Bend. Follow the Rio Grande along the Mexican border to historic San Antonio, visiting the Alamo, the Spanish mission complex that was the scene of the eponymous battle, and finish in music-loving Austin.

Longhorn cattle in Fort Worth (Getty Images)

Longhorn cattle in Fort Worth (Getty Images)

8. Tennessee and Louisiana: Memphis to New Orleans

Length 400 miles
Duration seven days
Route Memphis – Vicksburg – Port Gibson – Natchez – New Orleans

Setting out from Memphis, home of the blues, this meandering week-long route takes you to the sultry heart of the Deep South. Memphis itself (and Graceland) is worth a weekend — make a pilgrimage to the city’s Stax Museum of American Soul Music to stomp your feet to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Then head south down the Mississippi Delta on Highway 61. The scrubby, rock-strewn route offers a taste of Civil War history (at Vicksburg battlefield), antebellum architecture (at Port Gibson and Natchez) and homely Southern hospitality (everywhere you go). Cross the river west into Louisiana’s French-inflected Cajun Country, then coast along the mile-wide Mississippi River past plantation-era mansions and into New Orleans. Slurp seafood gumbo at Arnaud’s, a chandeliered spot in the French Quarter.

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The Magnolia Grill in Natchez by the Mississippi (Getty Images)

The Magnolia Grill in Natchez by the Mississippi (Getty Images)

9. Massachusetts and Vermont: Boston to Burlington

Length 690 miles
Duration five days (round trip)
Route Boston – Lowell – Bretton Woods – Lake Champlain and Burlington – Berkshire Mountains via Route 2 – Boston

Bid Boston goodbye and head northwest to Lowell, the 19th-century mill town birthplace of Jack Kerouac, patron saint of American road trips. You’ll drive country lanes that twist past retro diners, and over covered bridges that cross broad rivers flowing from the rugged peaks of the Presidential Range. In autumn, the whole scene blazes with fiery coloured leaves. Head north for one of the USA’s grandest old hotels, Mount Washington in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. It’s named after the east coast’s highest peak — drive up the mountain by car or take the cog railway (three-hour round trip). Head west to reach pine-ringed Lake Champlain and the state’s biggest city, Burlington. When you head back to Boston, wind over the green and golden Berkshire Mountains along Route 2, an old Native American trade route.

Best hotels in Boston

Erie Street in the historic town of Lowell, birthplace of Jack Kerouac (Alamy)

Erie Street in the historic town of Lowell, birthplace of Jack Kerouac (Alamy)

10. Nevada and Utah: Las Vegas to the national parks

Length 1,100 miles
Duration 14 days (round trip)
Route Las Vegas – Zion National Park – Cedar Breaks – Bryce Canyon National Park – Canyonlands National Park – Arches National Park – Grand Canyon – Seligman – Las Vegas

Leave the neon lights and fake pyramids of Las Vegas behind for a two-week, round-trip tour (on wheels and on foot) of natural wonders. Two hours’ drive northeast from the casinos, Utah’s Zion National Park is filled with eerie 300m (985ft) monoliths and river-carved canyons of red sandstone. Many have dramatic-sounding Mormon names such as Altar of Sacrifice and the Sentinel. Climb to the top of Angels Landing for a heavenly view. Beyond Zion, Highway 12 thunders by gasp-inducing parks: Cedar Breaks; the red rock spires of Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands National Parks; and Arches National Park’s sandstone spans (try crab cake muffins and honey-glazed lamb at Desert Bistro in Moab). Return via the Grand Canyon, and en route back to Vegas, take the historic Route 66 via Seligman and Delgadillo’s Snow Capdiner, said to be inspiration for the animated film Cars.

Best affordable hotels in Las Vegas

A desert bighorn ram in Zion National Park (Alamy)

A desert bighorn ram in Zion National Park (Alamy)

11. California: Los Angeles to San Francisco

Length 400 miles
Duration two days
Route Los Angeles – Santa Barbara – San Luis Obispo – Paso Robles – Hearst Castle – San Francisco via Highway 1

Highway 1, stretching off north and west from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is the classic US road trip. The Pacific Coast Highway isn’t a long drive — you could do it in six hours, but you’d be daft to. Give it at least two days — not just to allow time to crawl the traffic-jammed Santa Monica Freeway at the get-go, but to give yourself long enough to appreciate the astonishing cliff-edge views of waves below, the cute fishing towns, the sun-soaked hills and forests en route. Take longer, and fit in stop-offs at historic Santa Barbara, foodie San Luis Obispo and wine town Paso Robles. And be sure to mix up the eye-boggling natural sights with some equally eye-boggling man-made ones at Hearst Castle, the palace built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Imagine yourself at one of his Hollywood A-list parties among the baroque tapestries, neoclassical sculptures, exquisite swimming pools and zebra-grazed grounds.

Best hotels in Los Angeles
Best hotels in San Francisco

Highway 1 on California’s Pacific coastline (Getty Images)

Highway 1 on California’s Pacific coastline (Getty Images)

12. Illinois to Missouri: Chicago to Hannibal

Length 912 miles
Duration ten days (round trip)
Route Chicago – St Louis – Hannibal – Taliesin Preservation – Chicago

The trail of the historic Route 66 runs straight through Chicago — which makes the city a great starting point for a trip southwest. Within an hour, you’ll segue from shiny skyscrapers to a horizon of cornfields coupled with a huge dose of small-town charm: drive-in burger stands, a water tower disguised as the “World’s Largest Catsup (ketchup) Bottle”, and kitschy motels. Divert at St Louis, heading north along Route 61 under the stunning, stainless steel Gateway Arch, towards the grand mansions and clapboard hideaways of Mark Twain’s preserved hometown, Hannibal, Missouri (make for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum). On the return leg, detour to Taliesin Preservation, the old home and studio of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with its space-age glass roofs and pyramid paths.

Best stops on Route 66

A restored Studebaker truck in Main Street, Hannibal (Getty Images)

A restored Studebaker truck in Main Street, Hannibal (Getty Images)

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