9 of the best road trips in the USA

Sprawling cities, vast desert landscapes, picturesque coastline and beautiful national parks – view them all from behind the wheel on these iconic trips

Chris Wilson
Thursday 14 December 2023 17:54 GMT
The USA has more than four million miles of highway to explore
The USA has more than four million miles of highway to explore (Getty Images)

US road trips remain ever-present on travel bucket lists the world over.

A true pillar of American folklore, their routes are steeped in history and paint a picture of the USA through the ages, from the Gold Rush to the Cold War.

In the modern day, these routes remain on the travel lists of Americans and tourists alike, all longing to head out on the open road to discover vibrant cities, desert plains, attractive coastlines and enormous mountain ranges.

In a nation that stretches over 3,000 miles from east to west, there are hundreds of routes to take you across the country, whether you want to follow the coast north from California or take a more remote route in Alaska.

Lesser known odysseys such as Route 101 or the Lincoln Highway quickly capture the imagination, while famed highways such as Route 66 dominate the dreams of would-be road trippers. To help you decide which route suits you, we’ve rounded up a list of the best trips across the country.

Route 66

Chicago to Santa Monica

Route 66 is America’s most famous road trip (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The USA’s most famous route has been immortalised via a combination of pop culture and nostalgia, despite no longer officially being classified as highway. Today, it remains the holy grail of US road trips.

Stretching for around 2,500 miles from Chicago to the beachfront of Santa Monica (just next to Los Angeles), it provides a taste of times gone by in the US, from kitsch gas stations to the Wild West-like emptiness of the Arizona and New Mexico desert.

This retro feeling is lost at either end of the ‘Mother Road’, especially when arriving into LA, but the marked contrast means that those travelling the route get to experience a quintessential slice of the States, including beautiful desert landscapes, the vintage Americana of Texas and two of the country’s foremost modern cities.

Read more on North America travel:

The Great River Road

Minnesota to Louisiana

The Great River Road consists of a series of different state and local roads (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This winding route follows the equally serpentine Mississippi River for a total of over 2,300 miles through 10 states. It starts (or ends) in Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico, before coursing through Mississippi, Tennessee and ending up in Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

At its start, the route takes travellers across two of of the US’s most famous cities. It begins in New Orleans, the centre of Cajun and Creole culture, and shortly after passes through the capital of blues, soul and rock’n’roll: Memphis, Tennessee.

The rest of the route is renowned for showcasing an abundance of different natural landscapes that only a country as geographically diverse as the US could provide. The wetlands and bayous of Mississipi and Louisiana, including the Atchafalaya Basin, will be the most alien environment to many visitors, with a distinctly eerie, almost rainforest-like feel.

Following along the Mississippi, drivers will see flat plains, mountains and extensive woodland as the route crosses Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa and Wisconsin, before finishing in Minnesota, “the Land of 10,000 Lakes”.

Lincoln Highway

New York to San Francisco

The Lincoln Highway was conceived in the early 1900s (Getty Images)

Though no longer in existence as a single route, a little research will help you take on a section – or all – of the 3,389-mile long transcontinental route that was originally conceived in the 1910s. The route started in New York City and extended all the way to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, taking in 14 states including Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Utah and Nevada. Today, much of the road is now Route 30, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming – avoid the freeways of the I-80 for a trip with less motorway and more character.

Today, driving the route is easier in some states than others due to different standards in maintaining the route’s heritage, but this highway will take you across roughly 700 cities and towns, from small-time American settlements to big-hitters like Chicago and Pittsburgh. Along the way, you can learn about the history of both the highway and early America, visit 19th-century mining towns and see some delightful nature, including parts of Lake Tahoe and the Utah desert.

Route 101

Los Angeles to Olympia, Washington

Route 101 follows the Pacific Coast (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Route 101 traces the US’s Pacific Coast from California up into Washington, offering some of the best coastal views in the country. Though it technically starts in Los Angeles, you can begin the route from near the Mexican border, close to San Diego, all the way up to the border with Canada.

The route is split into different sections of road in each state. The first section is California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, which offers the first uninterrupted sightings of the turquoise waters of the Pacific. It carries on through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, passing through the famous wine regions of the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, before picking up the Oregon 101.

Oregon’s coast is home to raw natural beauty, captured in the rugged, unspoilt coastline of areas like Cannon Beach and the valleys of the Columbia River. You continue along the river as you enter Washington, eventually circling the Olympic Peninsula and its mountains before finishing near Olympia’s State Capitol Building.

Richardson Highway

Valdez to Fairbanks

An alternative to the Richardson Highway is the road between Valdez and Anchorage (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Shorter than many US trips, but certainly no less scenic, the Richardson Highway extends for “just” 364 miles between the cities of Valdez and Fairbank. Alaska offers some of the wildest natural landscapes in America, perhaps best compared to parts of Iceland when viewing its large glaciers, towering peaks, dramatic gorges, steep waterfalls and the Valdez glacier lake.

Various locations offer a host of activities such as white water rafting, hiking, fishing and even ice climbing (as well as views of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline). Both Valdez and Fairbanks have a range of things to keep you busy too, from lake cruises and whale watching to skiing and Northern Lights spotting.

The Atlantic Coast

New York to Florida Keys

The 113-mile Overseas Highway is one of the highlights of the Atlantic Coast route (Getty Images)

Another road trip that gets to roughly 2,000 miles but can easily be split up into manageable sections, a trip down the Atlantic Coast is a worthy alternative to its Pacific counterpart. There is no defined route, with some beginning as far north as Bar Harbor in Maine, and others starting in NYC. If you do start in Maine, you’ll have the option to explore Boston, Rhode Island and the Hamptons, as well as the Big Apple.

Continuing south towards Miami, you can travel through Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Atlantic City, the East’s answer to Las Vegas. If you stick to the coast rather than heading to the capital, you’ll go through Delaware before crossing a tiny section of the Atlantic over into Virginia Beach.

Carrying on through North and South Carolina, you’ll eventually reach Florida, first via Jacksonville and then Orlando if you fancy a small detour. From Miami you’re on the home stretch, but not before you cross arguably the highlight of the entire trip – the 113-mile Overseas Highway, which extends over the Atlantic between Miami and Key West, the final stop.

Road to Hana

Hana to Kahului

The Hana Highway is Hawaii’s premier road trip (Getty Images)

Hawaii may not be the first destination that comes to mind when thinking of road trips, with the Polynesian-influenced State home to a fascinating local culture, laid-back towns and coastline so picturesque it’s scarcely believable. But one small route stands out on Maui that’s as beautiful as those famed beaches – the Hana Highway, which links the towns of Hana and Kahului.

Running for just 64 miles, this coastal route usually takes around three hours to drive due to speed limitations and around 600 bends, winding through dense jungle and passing over imposing cliffs while tantalisingly close to the emerald waters of the Pacific.

Western Highlights

San Francisco to Las Vegas

Tailoring your own Western trip gives the opportunity to see several cities at your leisure (Getty Images)

This trip takes in some of the US’s most famous landmarks and cities, passing through California, Nevada and Arizona.

Begin in charming San Francisco, where innovation, forward-thinking and counterculture have combined to form a bohemian city backed by national landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. The first stop on your route will be Yosemite National Park, a land of surreal landscapes including giant sequoias, the 914-metre vertical rock face of El Capitan and North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls.

Continue on a slightly longer drive southeast towards Los Angeles, where you’ll need a few days to take in the sights of Hollywood, Santa Monica, Malibu and the rest, before continuing on to the Grand Canyon via the I-10 or I-40 freeways.

Red rock hills and desert plains will quickly come into sight before you reach what is undeniably one of America’s most famous, and impressive, natural sites. Explore, hike and marvel at the vast sandstone cliffs and winding waterways, before spending the night in a rustic mountain cabin. This grandiose trip finishes in equally extravagant Las Vegas, the US’s undisputed home of hedonism.

Read our reviews of the best USA hotels

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in