Road-tripping is the ultimate way to see America. You can drive up, down, across, around or straight through every state in the continental US. 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.
Bixby Creek Bridge, on Highway 1 near Big Sur, California, is one of the Pacific Coast Highway's most photogenic spots © Thomas Winz / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images Plus
Pacific Coast Highway – California, Oregon & 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.
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.
Historic Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, with epic stops along the way © Trekandshoot iStock / Getty Images Plus
Known as the Mother Road, this fragile ribbon of concrete 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.
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, slavers, 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.
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.
Gold Coast – Michigan
While Michigan's shore has been a holiday hot spot for over a century, it still surprises: the Caribbean-azure water, the West Coast surfing vibe, the French-style cider house that pops up by the road. Ernest Hemingway used to spend summers in the northern reaches, and he never forgot it. Even after traveling the world, he once wrote that the best sky is in 'Northern Michigan in the fall.'
Time your stop with the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup to catch a glimpse of the wild west © 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 which includes the so-called Million Dollar Highway, a handful of the region’s coolest mountain towns and Mesa Verde National Park. 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 Road to Hana, which traces Maui's eastern coastline, is chock-full of waterfalls and ocean views © Monica & Michael Sweet Perspectives / Getty Images Plus
The Road to Hana – Hawaii
Hold on tight! Of all the jaw-droppingly dramatic drives in Hawaii, this one on Maui is the Big Kahuna. A roller coaster of a ride, the Hana Highway twists down into jungly valleys and back up towering cliffs, curling around 600 twists and turns along the way. Fifty-four one-lane bridges cross nearly as many waterfalls – some eye-popping torrents, others soothing and gentle. But the ride’s only half the thrill. Get out and swim in a Zen-like pool, hike a ginger-scented trail and savor fresh guava and coconuts.
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.
The Hoh Rainforest 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 & 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.