Driving to the heart of America

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With a little gas and some open road, you can drive into heart of the US, both literally and figuratively. Here are five trips that are purely American; escapes from franchised modernity and generic suburbs to authentic places that define the nation and bring life to the iconic images of your imagination.

The Pacific Coast Highway

San Francisco to Redwood National Park, 340 miles (547km)

California's Highway 1 is a hugely popular drive. Many head south from San Francisco to Big Sur and beyond, but those who head north will enjoy a drive like no other. Tiny coastal towns dot a route past wild beaches and sheer cliffs.

Start with an iconic crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge, then take Highway 1 north. At Point Reyes National Seashore, breakers that started in the North Pacific pound the sand with metronomic regularity. Just north, Bodega Bay will be immediately familiar to any fan of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Towns become fewer and further between by the time Highway 1 merges into US Highway 101. This juncture leads into Humboldt County, home to people who take their independence seriously and live far off the grid. Finally near the top of the state, Redwood National Park is home to giant trees that count on the copious fog that rolls in off the ocean. Pause, hike and revel in the silent forests that are like none anywhere else.

Icon of the West: Monument Valley

Four Corners to the Grand Canyon, 285 miles (458km)

Whether it is a John Wayne movie, a spaghetti western or a Road Runner cartoon, Monument Valley is visual shorthand for every cliché of the American west. Towering spires of rock alternate with flat-topped buttes and stark vistas; you expect to hear the cavalry charging in the distance.

Stemming off US highway 160, US 163 through Monument Valley includes a looping 17-mile drive into the heart of the geologic action, an area that belongs to the fabled Navajo Nation. The journey here is part of the adventure: from the eastern side of US 163, travel from kitschy Four Corners Navajo Tribal Park (where four classic American western states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah – meet). From the west, start at the yawning masterpiece which is the Grand Canyon.

The Old South

St Louis to New Orleans, 740 miles (1191km)

From the nation's centre to the very heart of the Old South, this drive is an only-in-America spectacle of music, food and culture from start to finish. St Louis, renowned for its blues, features Gateway Arch, which honours the pioneers who moved west. But turn south and follow the watery artery of the nation: the Mississippi River.

Start on US Hwy 61 and follow it to Memphis, home of Elvis and famed American BBQ. Continue into the river's namesake state, Mississippi. Decades evaporate in the heat of the southern days as you pass timeless cotton plantations and tiny towns. Pause at the river city of Vicksburg to learn about the pivotal Civil War battle here. As you reach New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and home to some of the best food in the country, the land seems to dissolve into water.

New England's coast

Boston to Acadia National Park, 310 miles (500km)

Thick accents spoken through pursed lips vie with the cries of shore birds and the involuntary 'oohs' and 'ahhs' of lobster eaters, providing the sounds for this coast-hugging journey along narrow two-lane roads. It begins with MA-1A taking you northeast out of Boston toward Salem, Massachusetts. Religious beliefs have always played a strong role in US life, however in 1692, Salem became the centre of religious mania, as fears spread that the town's women were witches. The subsequent historic trials had deadly consequences, a reason for visiting the town today.

From here, take MA-127, which branches off MA-1A and follows the sinuous coast east. Fishing was the economic backbone of this coast for centuries and nowhere more so than Gloucester, Massachusetts, the port chronicled in the movie The Perfect Storm. Once past the fragment of coast in New Hampshire, pause at America's other hip and happening Portland, in Maine. It's not far from here to Rockland, the self-proclaimed 'Lobster Capital of the World'. Finish at the rugged, craggy shores of Acadia National Park.

The Florida Keys

Miami to Key West, 160 miles (257km)

Head south from the palm-fringed urban pleasures of Miami for the string of pearls stretching into the Caribbean called the Florida Keys. The road here (US Highway 1) is called the Overseas Highway and it is just that: a paved ribbon that spends more time on bridges over the beautiful blue waters than on land.

Americans have always had a rebellious spirit and the Keys were long a haven for pirates and smugglers – these days you're more likely to meet people diving, fishing or just loafing. The reward for this drive is the crazy playground of Key West, a classic end-of-the-road town where the rules were lost somewhere along the way.

This article was originally published in June 2012. This article was updated in October 2012.