From Twain to Whitman to Kerouac, the open road as a symbol of freedom and adventure, of exhilarating escape from suffocating expectation, rings cool and clear through the American mythos. Whether you’re looking for natural wonders, jazz-infused ecstasies, fresh encounters or simply swift-wheeled liberation from the baggage of your tired old selfhood, the American landmass is cut through with tarmac to quicken your flight. For a little guidance on where to start, these 10 classic road trips encompass a wide range of the landscapes that cover the United States, from ice-bound Alaska to tropical Hawaii via Pacific beaches and barren badlands.
This 127-mile highway connecting Anchorage to Seward in the south of Alaska cuts through the wild, ice-bound landscape of Chugach National Park. Either side of the road, giant glaciers grind towards the sea, ice-capped mountains unfurl streams which expand into roaring rivers, and calm lakes sit still and secluded within vast fir tree forests. Drop into the Alaska Museum of Natural History in Anchorage before you set off to understand a little more of the immense forces that have shaped this varied and untamed terrain.
The Hana Highway curves, twists and gyrates along the tropical coastline of Maui, connecting Kahului and Hana on an old sugar plantation route. The road is framed by the glittering blue Pacific and sandy beaches on one side, and by tropical forest and deep waterfall pools on the other. Swim in crystal-clear streams before crossing the road to surf the salt-sharp waves. Also be sure to stop off at the Waikamoi Ridge Trail for a one hour stroll through verdant tropical forest, and to drop into the Garden of Eden Maui, a riotously colourful botanic gardens where they filmed portions of Jurassic Park.
This glorious sun-baked stretch of cliff-hugging highway travels all the way from Southern California to Washington state, although there’s no doubt that one of the most beautiful stretches runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Between these cities you can drop into Malibu for surfing and cocktails, Santa Barbara for wine and whale-watching, and of course Big Sur for utterly breathtaking coastal scenery: cross the Rainbow Canyon via the great white arches of Bixby Bridge, before brushing through towering Redwood Forest that runs down to meet the Pacific’s foam-laced fringe.
Highway 12 threads through Utah’s rugged natural world of giant red rocks and dramatic limestone canyons. It begins among the otherworldly statuary of Bryce Canyon, an orange-hued field of sharp-edged hoodoos, and ends amid the exposed earth-buckling rockscapes of Capitol Reef National Park. En route you can peek into the bare sun-baked immensity of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which showcases a huge variety of stunning geological features and formations as well as fascinating paleontological sites.
More breathtaking vistas of eroded rock can be enjoyed on South Dakota’s Highway 240, which loops for 40 slow miles through the bare, barren and evocatively named Badlands National Park. Jagged buttes and cliffs splice the blue skyline, containing within them one of the country’s richest fossil records. A pre-trip visit to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center helps reanimate the park’s prehistoric world, when it was roamed by rhinos and saber-tooth tigers. Today you can grab a bite at the Cedar Pass Restaurant, with its buffalo-meat tacos, though it might be better to pull over and picnic at one of the 14 spectacular viewpoints lining the byway.
Covering what feels like most of America, Route 66 ties together the landscapes of the old west with the modern metropolises of Los Angeles and Chicago, which bookend this great cross-country journey. Nicknamed the Mother Road, and one of the original highways within the U.S. highway system, it passes through the barren deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, between flat and dust-strewn plains of saguaro and tumbleweed, before kicking into farmland and forest as it journeys north towards the Windy City. En route are innumerable gas stations, motels and diners packed with kitsch Americana, well-placed to meet your physical and myth-making needs.
Lookout Mountain’s sharp skyline ridge cuts across three states, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. It is surrounded by a self-contained hilltop ecosystem of oak forest and mountain laurel, of canyons, caverns and cold-clear cataracts, that seems deliberately suspended above the doubt-ridden world below. All this can be explored along the Lookout Mountain Parkway, created by knotting together old rural byways passing through a series of national parks and preserves. The mountainside can also be viewed from a comfortable seat on the spectacular Incline Railway, which climbs a near-vertical route up the mountain’s forested slopes.
The Blue Ridge Parkway curves across a high and wild stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains, joining Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smokies of North Carolina. It is flanked by a series of massive national forests, passing beneath a vibrant canopy before breaking out into mountaintop clouds or, on clear days, jaw-dropping vistas across the surrounding green-swathed hills and valleys. This ribbon of black tarmac soars for 469 breathtaking miles, and the 45 mph speed limit and frequent viewpoints give plenty of scope to study the wild flowers and the animals inhabiting the undergrowth on either side of the road.
Leaving behind the pine forests and cool mountain air of the central and eastern road trips, and the desertscapes of those on the west, the Overseas Highway covers an entirely new landscape: the open sea. Railroad bridges have been converted and adjoined to freshly built stretches of elevated road, flinging an audacious black streak across the turquoise waters. This streak carries U.S. Route 1 through the Florida Keys, from Key Largo out to Key West, so you can drop into these laid-back beachside communities as you go, whether for a drink or to meet the wildlife that inhabits the water either side of the highway itself.
The green, rocky, crisp-aired northeastern edge of the United States is traversed by the venerable Route 1 as it runs through Maine, which has been carrying traffic since the 1920s. It winds alongside craggy cliffs, beneath the cries of gulls and above the many ships that continue to ply one of the world’s great migration routes. As it bends south, Route 1 passes a string of lighthouses that have directed ships and warned of attack since the 18th century. Among the best-preserved is Portland Head Light, adjoined by red-roofed keeper’s quarters, which first lit its 16 whale oil lamps back in 1791.
Don’t miss these stops on Route 1: