Down the highway: 10 great US drives
Do you want shimmering cityscapes, soaring mountains or vistas over the Pacific? The IoS's writers select their favourite routes
Sunday 09 May 2004
1 St Louis to Kansas City
1 St Louis to Kansas City
The surrounding countryside is nothing special: no dramatic panoramas but rolling fields and hills that become gentler with every mile you go. But to drive west on Interstate 70 from St Louis to Kansas City is to make that magical transition from the East, which ends with the Mississippi and the great river city of St Louis, to the vast expanses and numbing distances of the plains and beyond. You ease into another America, with a beauty all its own - and never more so than in sunset's fading afterglow of deep orange and indigo. Just as darkness settles, in the middle of nowhere, you hit one of those 21st century encampments of gas stations, McDonald's arches and neon motel signs, cutting into the night. Objectively, it's tacky verging on hideous, "Anywhere USA" made flesh. What comes to mind, however, is that line from the movie Field of Dreams. Is this heaven? No, it's Western Missouri.
2 Rock Creek Parkway, Washington DC
It is Washington's gorgeous little secret, for us denizens of northwest DC, a private road to downtown, to Georgetown, to the handsome Potomac river, or Reagan National, surely the most convenient (if security-obsessed) airport in the world. Rock Creek Parkway runs just a few miles. It winds through a steeply wooded park alongside Rock Creek, a green sliver leading to the heart of an imperial city which, for the quarter hour or so of the drive, might not exist at all. The journey is usually brisk, but not too brisk to prevent enjoyment of the sights along the way - old Pierce Mill, dating back to 1820, the exotic buildings of the National Zoo, the spectacular viaduct, which carries bustling Connecticut Avenue 100ft overhead, Oak Hill cemetery clinging to the slope, and then Georgetown. The road follows the natural contours of the land. It is at its best in spring, but a joy in any season.
3 Vicksburg to Greenville, Mississippi
Go on a hot day, go when the weather is steaming, when the humidity is heavy and your clothes are damp even before you've walked a few yards. Vicksburg is worth an hour or two's distraction. Visit the battlefield and the site of the 47-day siege where the Confederates sought to hold off the Union forces in what would be one of the turning points of the US Civil War. But the real fun starts once you hit Route 61, the old Blues road, the road through the flatlands and the levees, driving headlong through the Delta, the Mississippi to one side, the Yazoo river to the other. It's the landscape of work songs, of field hollers, of cotton plantation where they still pay Black people peanuts to work the land. You race past juke joints in small towns and crossroads where Robert Johnson may have sold his soul to the devil. I made the journey once at night, in an open-top Ford Mustang, the dark sky silent but for the car roaring along the flat empty roads.
4 Washington to Point Lookout, Maryland
Salvation from the city, a Sunday escape from the beast. Head the car south on Route 295 past the slums of Anacostia until you pick up Route 5 to southern Maryland. You'll zoom past open meadows with huge wooden barns from a different generation, farmers' markets selling gnarled fruit for a few dollars a basket and - as you get nearer to the shore - shacks selling crabs and ice-cold beers on communal tables laid out with old newspapers. The destination is Point Lookout, a national park made up of lagoons and pine trees, slap-bang in the Cheasepeake Bay with a view across the opening ocean and a smell of fresh salty air. At weekends, the park is packed with Hispanic families who crush the place with their barbecues and football games. And it is less than two hours from the capital. You ca be back in the city by the evening.
5 From Brunswick along Maine's coast
A drive along the coast of central Maine in mid-summer will easily provide two weeks of adventure, with spotless seaside towns, such as Camden and Ellsworth, with grand white homes and even grander white churches, and days of sand and sea on beaches and in rocky inlets. The main part of your drive will begin at Brunswick, where you will leave the hectic I-95 highway and take the extraordinarily scenic Route 1 that hugs the coastline. Your map will tempt you with any number of side trips down peninsulas jutting south to the Atlantic. Look for Route 15, just north of Bucksport, that will take you to picturesque Blue Hill, with lovely restaurants and boarding houses and beyond to the tiny fishing port of Stonington. Certainly, you will want to take a second excursion south on Route 3 out of Ellsworth. This brings you to Mount Desert Island and the stunning Acadia National Park. This is the Maine landscape at its most grandiloquent. The town of Bar Harbor on the island provides all the necessary amenities for tourists and - be warned - serious traffic jams in the month of August.
6 Salida to Vail, Colorado
The Rockies do not lack for breathtaking roads, but few will give you the feeling of being on top of the world. Come in late spring or autumn, and do this drive in the early morning or towards evening, when the shadows are oblique and cause the peaks, the wild flowers and the arid meadow greenery across the broad expanse of the Upper Arkansas Valley to melt into a dance of beguiling colours. Salida and Leadville, the two main towns along the route, both belong to Colorado's mining past and retain a Victorian charm (Salida with its wooden, pastel buildings, Leadville - the highest city in the United States - with its red brick.) Most of this road is above 9,000ft with elevations rising to 14,000ft on both sides, the Sawatch range to the west and the Mosquito range to the east. There is no lack of distractions along the way: not just hiking, but also white-water rafting near Buena Vista, and ample skiing possibilities during the season.
7 Seattle to Hurricane Ridge
On a clear summer's day, the ferry ride across Puget Sound alone makes this trip unforgettable. Ahead is the Olympic range, behind are the Cascades and the shimmering Seattle skyline; to the north Mount Baker and, to the south, the fairy-tale contours of Mount Rainier, all set against a brilliant sky and opaline water. The road then island-hops, including a wobble across the floating Hood Canal bridge, and heads up to the elegant Victorian dormitory town of Port Townsend. Ignore the developmental blight of Sequim and Port Angeles and concentrate instead on the views across the San Juan de Fuca strait towards Victoria, Canada. Once aloft on Hurricane Ridge, extraordinary vistas open up: the alpine meadows, spruce-covered slopes and glacier peaks of the Olympics in one direction and the splendours of Vancouver Island in the other.
8 Manistee to Traverse City, Michigan
Northern Michigan - as opposed to the flat, industrial part of the state around Detroit - is one of the United States' best-kept secrets, a near-idyllic landscape of gently rolling pine-covered sandstone hills, lakes and elegant small towns. Summer is by far the best time to come, not least because the super-abundance of the local cherry crop. The pristine shores of Lake Michigan feel a bit like the Landes in south-west France, only with smaller breakers off the water. Route 22 gives you a feel for the understated charm of the whole region. Manistee is an elegant yachting town. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are a remarkable natural monument, the name derived from an ancient Indian myth. The fishing towns of Leland and Northport are filled with boats and wooden shacks with piles driven into their harbours. And Traverse City is an unexpectedly charming market town with dreamy views over a broad bay.
9 San Francisco to Bodega Bay
Just about any stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in California could qualify as a great drive, but this one has a special all-weather beauty. In the sun, there is no sight more magical than looking back across the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco Bay. In one of the area's frequent rolling fogs, the gloom is pierced by extraordinary shards of light that might illuminate Stinson Beach or the lonely lagoon of Bolinas. Route 1 skirts the majestic redwoods of Muir Woods and the wild, rocky, virtually uninhabited coastline of west Marin, with its backdrop of Mount Tamalpais and Cezanne-like colouring. It then passes the dank, remote, wooded farmland of the Point Reyes peninsula and finishes up at the postcard-worthy fishing town of Bodega Bay, most famously captured by Alfred Hitchcock as the setting for The Birds, and still an object of mystery, with its peninsula stretching into the Pacific tides.
10 Beartooth Highway, Montana, Wyoming
Frequently named America's most beautiful road, and with good reason. Its grand vistas of the Rockies, its hundreds of alpine lakes and glacier-filled canyons, its sharp rises and grand plateaus with dramatic names such as Silver Run and Hell Roaring, are as thrilling as any mountain landscape in the world. From Cooke City, an old gold-mining camp on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, the road passes the Nez Perce trail and the forbiddingly dark Pilot Peak. Then it meanders around a cluster of lakes before rising high into the Beartooth mountains. The roadside "Top of the World" is the closest thing this unspoiled landscape has to a tourist trap. Thereafter come some of the most spectacular views, including Beartooth itself - an unmissable jagged spire of a mountain first named by the Crow Indians. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep grace the plateaus.
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