Top 10 Great American Road Trips

From Route 66 to the Florida Everglades, here are some sweet drives

As the weather warms up, it’s time to think about a vacation. Flying is getting more precarious with the increase in engine malfunction incidents. Buses and trains have their own advantages and disadvantages.

I’ve always preferred driving to other modes of transport during a vacation. One reason is cost: For a family of three like mine, it costs about $400 for gasoline, food, and lodging to drive the roughly 3,000 miles from the Washington, D.C., area to Dallas and back, compared with some $1,150 to fly. Gasoline prices are rising; the average for regular unleaded nationwide in late April was $2.79 per gallon, up from $2.40 a year ago, according to AAA. But that is still significantly less than the record high level of $4.11 in 2008.

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‘Strong and content I travel the open road…’ — Walt Whitman [Shay photo]

Another reason is the sheer unpredictable nature of a road trip. You never know how far you might go or what you will see in any given day. Statistics may show you are more likely to be in an accident in a vehicle than plane, but I still like having the wheel in my hands.

As for environmental impact, yes, driving likely leaves a heavier carbon footprint than, say, a train. But my car gets better mileage than most at 40 MPGs. I also try to make up for my regular vehicle trips by walking and taking public transport more during the rest of the year. It looks like I will have plenty of company; U.S. highway travel is forecast by the feds to rise 1.3 percent this summer over a year ago.

So where are the best road trips in the country? These ten may take a road trip in themselves for many to reach. But they are all sweet drives in their own rights.

#10: Lincoln Highway
Franklin Grove, Ill., to Fulton, Ill.
49 miles

The nation’s first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway was dedicated in 1913, though it would be more than a decade before the road was fully paved through 14 states between New York City and San Francisco. The Illinois portion crosses two other historic roadways, Route 66 and the Dixie Highway.

A good place to start is the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association in Franklin Grove, where you can get information on routes and other details. The route can be difficult to follow since realignments were made through the years, but many states have signs along the 3,400 miles of highways and back roads.

From the association’s headquarters, go west on Illinois 38 through Dixon, where you can visit the boyhood home of former President Ronald Reagan. The town is also the site of the Lincoln Monument State Memorial, marking the spot where Abraham Lincoln joined the Illinois militia at Fort Dixon in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.

West of Sterling, the old highway rejoins US 30 through Morrison, and then Illinois 136 into Fulton. Visit the authentic Dutch windmill and Windmill Cultural Center and enjoy the scenic views along the Mississippi River at the Iowa border.

Fulton is also part of the ten-state Great River Road, a series of roadways that run along the mighty Mississippi River. Drive north or south on Illinois Route 84 to get a feel for that National Scenic Byway.

#9: Four Corners
Petrified Forest NP, Ariz., to Four Corners, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah
316 miles

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Monument Valley near Four Corners [Shay photo]

The Southwest’s beauty is on full display. Start at Petrified Forest National Park off Interstate 40 in Arizona to see petroglyphs and petrified logs.

Continue east on I-40 to US 191 and head north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Native peoples have lived in these 1,000-foot-high cliffs for nearly 5,000 years.

Remain on US 191 north and turn left onto US 160, then right onto US 163 to Monument Valley. This site of iconic buttes and mesas served as the location of many films starring John Wayne and others. Cross into Utah on 163, then take US 191 south to US 160 east, which takes you to the only spot that intersects four states in the country. There is a slight charge by the Navajo Nation to get this unique photo of being in four states at once.

#8: High Road to Taos
Santa Fe, N.M., to Taos to Ojo Caliente, N.M.
195 miles

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Albuquerque Balloon Festival [Shay photo]

In Santa Fe, visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses more than 3,000 works of art, about one-third by its namesake, as well as a research center.

Other attractions in New Mexico’s capital include the Santa Fe Plaza, a National Historic Landmark in the downtown area; the Loretto Chapel with the “Miraculous Staircase” that has no apparent means of support; and the Santa Fe Opera, a few miles north of Santa Fe off US 84/285.

The opera features a breath-taking view of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. Camel Rock at exit 175 is also worth a stop. The nearby Camel Rock Casino may be worth visiting if you play table games.

Continue north on US 84/285 to Espanola and take New Mexico 68 to Taos, where you can visit the famous Taos Pueblo. The multi-storied adobe buildings, which have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark., have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. Drive north on NM 522 to US 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge for a fantastic view of the river and canyons.

Drive north on 64, then go south on US 285 to Ojo Caliente Mineral Resort and Spa for a mud bath or massage. Natural hot springs can be found to soak for free, but most require some back-road driving and hiking.

#7: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Asheville, N.C., to Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
92 miles

America’s most popular national park by far and one of the few that is free to enter, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracted 11.3 million visitors in 2017, almost twice as many as the second-place Grand Canyon. Start at Asheville, where you can tour the 250-room Biltmore Estate and find a local treasure at Malaprop’s Bookstore.

Drive some 30 miles west on Interstate 40 to exit 27 and go south on US 74 to US 19. Head east to Soco Gap, where you can access the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive through the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Tour the authentic Indian village at Oconaluftee and check out the exhibits of early settlers at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, one of four in the 816-square-mile park.

The nearby Mountain Farm Museum contains a Smokies log homestead complete with a smokehouse and blacksmith shop. You can learn about some 10,000 year of Cherokee Indian history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Also in the town of Cherokee is Qualla Arts and Crafts, billed as the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative dating to 1946.

Continue north US 441, or Newfound Gap Road, and turn left on Clingmans Dome Road. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. The observation tower offers excellent views of the park on clear days. Back on Newfound Gap, the two-mile Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park. The trail climbs some 1,400 feet so be prepared for some hills.

Turn right on Little River Road to Gatlinburg, where you can take in a vast array of touristy sites, from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a surprisingly good aquarium in this mountain town, to Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park. Nearby Pigeon Forge even has a Titanic museum, which recreates that ill-fated 1912 voyage.

#6: Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive
Cherokee, N.C., to Front Royal, Va.
574 miles

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Great Smokies with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. An All-American Road, the parkway’s southern point is Cherokee, and it winds north to Skyline Drive, a 105-mile roadway managed by a different National Park Service unit.

While not a national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most popular unit of the federal park system with 16.1 million visitors in 2017. That was about one million more than Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

Near Asheville, stop at the Folk Art Center on the parkway just north of Highway 70. The center showcases the work of local craftspeople who often demonstrate their work and is among the most popular attractions on the road, with about 300,000 visitors annually.

Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet, is worth a detour with a small museum and the tomb of namesake Elisha Mitchell at the summit. Summer and early fall are the best times to drive to the top; the wind in the winter can exceed 100 miles per hour and temperatures dip to 20 below zero. In the spring, lightning can strike the mountain, which some scientists believe was as high as a Himalayan peak millions of years ago before being worn down by the elements.

Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina, died in 1857 when he fell from a cliff above a waterfall now called Mitchell’s Falls. His body was first buried in Asheville, then transferred to the top of Mount Mitchell.

You can learn about local gems and minerals at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals in Spruce Pine and mine for gems at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland. Continue north to more mountains and visitor centers to the parkway’s northern endpoint at Rockfish Gap.

From there, you can enter Skyline Drive for more stunning views, such as at Hawksbill Mountain, which at 4,050 feet is this park’s highest peak. The drive is particularly scenic in the fall when the leaves are turning various colors.

#5: Black Hills
Badlands NP to Mount Rushmore, S.D.
149 miles

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The Badlands, South Dakota [Shay photo]

Once the center of the American West, South Dakota’s terrain changes quickly from flat prairieland in the eastern half to fossil-rich sedimentary buttes in the Badlands and mountains so thick in evergreens that to the natives viewing them in the distance they appeared black.

Off Interstate 90, take exit 131 to Badlands National Park. Hike on a trail among the sandstone spires, layered in purple, red and orange-colored rock. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center displays fossil finds of saber-tooth cats and other ancient mammals in the paleontology lab. There is even a fossil exhibit trail.

On the way to Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, visit Wall Drug Store, a stop for motorists since 1931. Jackalope figurines, a mounted rabbit’s head with antelope-like antlers, are among popular items.

Take Highway 16 to Mount Rushmore National Monument, where the 60-foot-high heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are cut in granite.

The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center theater details the 14-year construction process led by Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and historian Doane Robinson, who conceived the idea to attract visitors. Many of the roughly 400 workers dangled on ropes for hours at a time during the Great Depression using jackhammers and other tools to sculpt the artwork. There were only a few injuries and no deaths during the construction process.

Custer State Park has a scenic 18-mile loop road with views of bison, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. Needles Highway is another good drive with views of spires and the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, the state’s tallest mountain.

The Crazy Horse Memorial has been worked on since 1948 as Native Americans’ answer to Mount Rushmore. The 87-foot-high head of Crazy Horse is finished, while other parts are planned.

#4: US 89
Yellowstone NP to Glacier NP
377 miles

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Tunnel leading to Yellowstone [Shay photo]

The mountainous West is brought out in full force during this scenic drive. Yellowstone National Park was the nation’s first national park, established in 1872, and has the largest collection of geysers on the planet. It was the sixth most popular national park in 2017 with 4.1 million visitors.

The park has some really scenic canyons, particularly the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which is near Canyon Village on the Yellowstone River downstream from Yellowstone Falls. The canyon is about 1,200 feet deep, not much compared with Arizona’s Grand Canyon’s depth of 6,000 feet. But the views, especially at Inspiration Point, are spectacular enough.

The Mud Volcano, located south of Canyon Village and north of Yellowstone Lake, is worth a stop. Created by the unique mixture of geothermal gases such as hydrogen sulfide, mud and water, the formation is not a true volcano since it does not produce lava, although Yellowstone did experience a cataclysmic volcanic explosion 600,000 years ago. Today, the Mud Volcano bubbles and creates a distinct smell. The nearby Black Dragon’s Caldron exploded in 1948, toppling trees and spewing out mud.

Further down the Grand Loop Road is Yellowstone’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful. The cone geyser lives up to its name, spewing thousands of gallons of boiling water as high as 185 feet every 90 minutes or so. Named by American explorers in 1870 for its predictable eruptions, some soldiers in the 19th century tried to use Old Faithful as a laundry but found their woolen clothing torn to shreds.

To the north is Mammoth Hot Springs, a series of some 50 hot springs. It is illegal to swim in park springs and geysers due to damage and safety factors. But there is a spot on the Gardner River two miles north of Mammoth on the north entrance road known as Boiling River where swimming is allowed, except when closed due to high water. Some call this site Yellowstone’s best-kept secret.

U.S. 89 in Montana takes you by towering mountains like the 10,992-foot Electric Peak and historical sites such as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail on the way to Glacier National Park. If you’re really adventurous, try the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road from St. Mary to Apgar. Portions are often closed from October through early June due to snow.

Another recommended drive is Beartooth Highway, a mountainous All-American Road that runs from Yellowstone’s northeast entrance to Red Lodge, Mont.

#3: Florida Keys Scenic Highway
Everglades National Park to Key West, Fla.
137 miles

If beaches and tropical places are more to your liking, the Florida Keys is the place. The stretch of US 1 between Key Largo and Key West hits the most spectacular tropical scenery you can get to in a car.

Start at Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The main entrance is off US 1 near Homestead south of Miami. Stop at the Royal Palm Visitor Center a few miles past the Coe Visitor Center to hike the Anhinga Trail. Take insect repellent because mosquitoes and flies can be pesky.

This is among the popular trails because of the abundance of turtles, herons, alligators and other wildlife. Further down the park’s main road is Pa-hay-okee Overlook, which has an observation tower.

If you’re driving down US 41, Shark Valley is another way to access the park to trails, where you can view gators and other wildlife.

Back on US 1, head south to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, where you can take a glass-bottom boat tour through the first undersea park in the nation, dating to 1963. View coral, sponges, sea turtles, eel and a wide variety of fish.

In Islamorado, visit Theater of the Sea to take in a show featuring dolphins, sea lions and parrots, swim at a lagoon and tour marine life with sharks, sea turtles, stingrays and crocodiles. There is also the History of Diving Museum with hundreds of rare diving helmets, armored suits and machines.

At the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, you can meet a dolphin up close and personal, and even swim with him or her for a fee. Crane Point Museum and Nature Center in Marathon has a rescue center for injured wild birds among its attractions.

The National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key protects this endangered subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer.

Finally, Key West has numerous unique attractions, such as the Historic Seaport, Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.

Don’t miss taking a photo at the Southernmost Point marker, a colorful buoy-shaped monument that marks the most southern point in the continental United States with Cuba only 90 miles away.

#2: Route 1, Pacific Coast Highway
Monterey, Calif., to Morro Bay, Calif.
123 miles

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Classic car show at the oldest existing Big Boy restaurant near Warner Brothers Studios in Calif. [Shay photo]

Drive south from Monterey to get unobstructed views of the California coast along this winding 123-mile route that features narrow shoulders and steep drop-offs in places.

The drive includes the Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway, both of which are among the relatively few roadways in the country designated as “All-American Roads” for their scenic beauty.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a top-flight attraction. Carmel-by-the-Sea features art galleries and the Carmel Mission, dating to 1770.

Point Lobos State Reserve has a unique undersea ecological reserve, where divers can view 70-foot high kelp forests, rockfish, seals, sea otters and even whales.

Further south, Big Sur winds more than 70 miles among majestic cliffs and redwood groves. A good place to stop to take in the view is Garrapata State Park just south of Carmel Highlands. The park has a sandy beach, but the pounding waves generally make it too dangerous for even wading.

Bixby Bridge, which is some 700 feet long and 260 feet high, is a good site for photos. The Point Sur Lighthouse dates to 1889 and is part of a state historic park. Nepenthe Restaurant is a popular indoor-outdoor restaurant that opened in 1949. The Henry Miller Memorial Library displays books and memorabilia of the novelist who lived among Big Sur.

Down the road is San Simeon, known for the famous Hearst Castle, the 127-acre estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. You can hunt for jade and moonstone — a type of feldspar gem with a pearly and opalescent luster — at Moonstone Beach in Cambria. Wind up in Morro Bay at the landmark Morro Rock, a 576-foot high extinct volcanic cone that is some 23 million years old.

#1: Route 66
Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.
2,451 miles

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Cadillac Ranch, Texas [Shay photo]

The Main Street of America or the Mother Road, Route 66 was one of the original highways formed in 1926. A major path for families migrating west during the 1930s Dust Bowl, the road was popularized by the hit song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” composed in 1946 by Bobby Troup, and the Route 66 television show in the 1960s.

The interstate highway system gradually replaced the two-lane roadway, which was officially removed from the national system in 1985. Portions of the road through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico and Arizona have been designated a National Scenic Byway, and some maps highlight Historic Route 66.

If you drive the Illinois portion, stop at the Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield, where the late Ed Waldmire Jr. and Don Strand laid claim to serving the first corn dog in the 1940s. The late Bob Waldmire, Ed’s son, operated a store in the former mining town of Hackberry, Ariz., that served as a Route 66 information and tourist shop. He won the National Historic Route 66 Federation’s John Steinbeck Award for his work to preserve the roadway, and his trademark van and bus are displayed in the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac, which is also worth a visit.

Other potential stops along portions of this famed roadway include:

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Venice Beach basketball courts at the end of Route 66 in California [Shay photo]

Honorable Mention Great American Road Trips

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Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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