Road-tripping has to be the ultimate way to see the USA: it gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. You can drive up, down, across, around, or straight through every single state of the continental US.

Do you want to revel in yesteryear along Route 66, marvel at spectacular sunsets on the Pacific Coast Hwy, or take in sublime scenery in the Appalachian Mountains or along rocky Massachusetts coastline? Read on for some of the best US road trips, plus some well-loved scenic drives, as well as tips on how to tackle them.

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Pacific Coast Highway

California, Oregon and Washington

A drive along America's stunning western coastline is road-tripping at its finest. In California, Hwy 1 (also called the Pacific Coast Highway), Hwy 101 and I-5 pass dizzying sea cliffs, idiosyncratic beach towns and a few major cities: laid-back San Diego, rocker LA and beatnik San Francisco. North of the redwoods, Hwy 101 swoops into Oregon for windswept capes, rocky tide pools and, for Twilight fans, Ecola State Park, the stand-in for werewolf haven La Push, WA. Cross the Columbia River into Washington for wet-and-wild Olympic National Park.

The Route

Time: No stopping? Give yourself four days because traffic and two-lane roads will slow you down; to fully enjoy the sights, allow 10 to 14 days. Mileage: About 1500 miles. Start/End San Diego/ San Francisco.

A summer morning sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina.
A summer morning sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina © anthony heflin / Shutterstock

Blue Ridge Parkway

Virginia and North Carolina

There's not one stoplight to spoil the ride on this 469-mile roadway traversing the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Along its nearly 217 miles in Virginia, you can watch sublime sunsets, scan for wildlife and lose all sense of the present while gazing at the vast wilderness. Hikes take you deeper into nature, from easy lakeside trails to challenging scrambles to eagles’-nest heights. Camp or spend the night at forest lodges. Don’t miss the bluegrass and mountain music scenes of nearby towns such as Floyd and Galax.

The Route

Time At least two days, but allow five days to do it right. It’s slow going on the steep, curvy roads, plus you’ll want to make a pit-stop for hiking, eating and sightseeing. Mileage 469 miles. Start/End Front Royal, Virginia/ Cherokee, North Carolina.

An orange sunset over a road painted with the Route 66 symbol
Historic Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, with epic stops along the way © Trekandshoot iStock / Getty Images Plus

Route 66

Cross-country

Known as the Mother Road, this fragile ribbon of asphalt was the USA’s original road trip, launched in 1926. It begins in Chicago, at the iconic Route 66 Sign, from where the 300-mile stretch onward through Illinois offers classic, time-warped touring. Fork into thick slabs of pie in small-town diners; snap photos of roadside attractions like the Gemini Giant, a sky-high fiberglass spaceman; and motor on past neon signs, drive-in movie theaters and other Americana. From here it's 2100 miles more to the end of the route in Los Angeles.

The Route

Time: You might be able to do this trip in two or three days if you rush, but plan for six and enjoy the drive. Mileage: About 1250 miles, depending on segments driven. Start/End Chicago, Illinois/ Los Angeles, California.

Neon signs light the strip along Broadway at night in Nashville
Neon signs light the strip along Broadway at night in the music-worshipping city of Nashville © pabradyphoto / Getty Images

Natchez Trace Parkway

Tennessee and Mississippi

What began as a buffalo trail running roughly between modern-day Nashville, Tennessee, to the riverbanks at Natchez, Mississippi, this historic route was further trampled by Native Americans, who used it as a hunting and trading route. Later it saw the footsteps of fur traders, European settlers, enslavers, confederate soldiers and presidents. With jade swamps, hiking trails, opulent mansions, riverside saloons and layer upon layer of American history, the Natchez Trace Pkwy is the richest drive in the South.

The Route

Time Three days, though you could do it in two. Travel times aren’t exactly speedy on the two-lane road. Mileage 444 miles. Start/End Nashville, Tennessee/ Natchez, Mississippi.

Saint Louis Gateway Arch along the pond in Gateway Arch National Park
Factor time to visit iconic sights,  like the St Louis Gateway Arch, when planning your road trip © Paul Brady Photography / Shutterstock

Great River Road

New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis and Minneapolis

This epic roadway edges the Mississippi River from its headwaters in northern Minnesota's pine forests all the way south to its endpoint in New Orleans. For a look at America across cultural divides – North/South, urban/rural, Baptist/bohemian – this is the road trip to make. Despite the name, the Great River Rd is not a single highway, but a series of linked federal, state and county roads that follow the Mississippi River as it flows through 10 different states. The one constant, wherever you are, is the green paddle-wheel sign that marks the way.

The Route

Time Six days to drive the road from north to south; 10 days enables a more comfortable, realistic pace. Mileage About 2000 miles.  Start/End Itasca State Park, Minnesota /New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Ocean Drive in the Art Deco district of South Beach, Miami on a sunny day with cars and palm trees
Finish your Florida road trip with a cruise along Ocean Drive in the Art Deco district of South Beach, Miami © littleny / Shutterstock

Florida Highway 1

Florida

For quintessential Florida sights and experiences, Hwy 1 spanning the Atlantic shoreline is it: Palm Beach's mansions, Fort Lauderdale's yachts and Miami's domino-clacking Cuban enclave of Little Havana all pop up along the way. Pristine, windswept beaches harboring endangered birds and manatees? They're here (at Canaveral National Seashore). Beaches known for hard-partying nightlife and NASCAR racing? Also here (at Daytona). Delicious seafood shacks and pastel-hued waterfront hotels are everywhere. This coast-hugging thoroughfare features miles and miles of beaches interspersed with fascinating historical sights, from the USA's oldest city to sobering slavery exhibits to NASA rockets. Glittering Miami provides the big finale. 

The Route

Time Six days to take in the sights. Mileage 475 miles. Start/End Amelia Island/ Miami.

Cowboys herd American buffalo across an auburn plain
Time your Black Hills Loop for the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, South Dakota © Laura Grier / robertharding / Getty Images Plus

Black Hills Loop

South Dakota

In the early 1800s, 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. Rampant overhunting decimated their ranks and by 1889 fewer than 1000 remained. Today, their numbers have climbed to 500,000; several Black Hills parks manage healthy herds. On this road trip you'll see the iconic buffalo and other legendary sights, including the Badlands, Mt Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, sprawling parks and the town made famous for having no law: Deadwood.

San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway

Colorado

The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop that includes the so-called Million Dollar Highway, a handful of the region’s coolest mountain towns and Mesa Verde National Park, which is known for the elaborate cliff dwellings left behind by the Ancestral Puebloans. It's undoubtedly the best way to experience the drama of the San Juan range without strapping on your hiking boots. Drive the Skyway and the tension of the daily grind gets lost somewhere among the towering peaks, picturesque towns and old mines around each bend, or evaporates in the bright sun of an intensely blue Colorado sky.

The Dalton Highway

Alaska

Belt up, stick some Springsteen on the stereo and get prepared for the ride of your life. The 500-mile trawl up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean won’t be the smoothest ride you'll ever take, but it could well be one of the most legendary. What the infamous "haul road" lacks in asphalt, it makes up for with a succession of surreal ecosystems, from the boreal forests of the interior to the bleak tundra of the North Slope. Arctic Ocean, here we come.

Moss-fringed tree branches over a winding road.
The Hoh Rainforest, on the Olympic Peninsula, is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US © Justin Bailie / Aurora / Getty

Olympic Peninsula Loop

Washington

Imagine pine-clad beaches fused with an American Mt Olympus (with a slice of coastal rainforest thrown in for good measure) and you’ve got an approximation of what a drive around the Olympic Peninsula looks like. This is wilderness of the highest order, where thick forest collides with an end-of-the-continent coastline that hasn’t changed much since Juan de Fuca sailed by in 1592. Bring hiking boots – and rain gear!

Zion and Bryce National Parks

Utah

Meet red-rock country in all its heart-soaring, sculpted splendor. From the sheer wall of Zion to the pastel sentinels of hoodoos that form Bryce Canyon, these are the landscapes that no one traveling in the Southwest should miss. This trip takes in the parks' classic highlights as well as tiny Western towns and off-the-beaten-path nature sanctuaries where the screech of a hawk breaks the silence of the trail.

Waves crash beneath a lighthouse, with a rocky shore in the foreground
Eastern Point Lighthouse in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a windy stop along the New England coast © DenisTangneyJr / Getty

Coastal New England

Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts

From a pirate's perspective, there was no better base in Colonial America than Newport, Rhode Island, given the easy access to trade routes and friendly local merchants. Until 1723, that is, when the new governor ceremoniously hanged 26 sea bandits at Gravelly Point. This classic trip follows the region's intrinsic connection to the sea and American history, from upstart pirates to coastal forts, from Gloucester fisherfolk to New Haven abolitionists, from whaling ships to revolutionary frigates.

Road trip planning tips

A prepared road-tripper is a happy road-tripper, especially out here, with lonely roads and unpredictable weather. Pack a spare tire and a tool kit (eg jack, jumper cables, ice scraper), as well as emergency equipment; if you're renting a car, ask if there is a roadside safety kit included.

Bring good maps, especially if you're touring away from highways; don't depend on GPS units or smart phones as they may not work in remote areas or can run out of battery.

Carry plenty if extra water. You may need it if the car breaks down in a hot dry place and there's a long wait for assistance. Don't forget to fill up your fuel tank regularly; gas stations can be few and far between once you leave urban areas. And finally, always carry your driver's license and proof of insurance.

Take a magical road trip on California's Highway 1

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This article was first published in May 2019 and last updated in September 2021.

This article was first published May 22, 2019 and updated September 11, 2021

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