Fortunately for non-Americans, one driving symbol of the American dream, the all-American road trip, can be experienced by everyone. Hit the byways, avoid the highways and you're halfway there.
Apparently, an American who’s felt no desire to cross the country on four wheels is either a liar or a communist. Road trips are part of the American psyche, stamped on the national soul by artists such as Jack Kerouac and Tom Waits, movies such as Thelma and Louise and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the legendary westward migrations of gold seekers and the first settlers.
Thanks to frequent, loaded references to it, Route 66 is the classic American road trip ((Get your kicks on) Route 66 was composed way back in 1946), symbolising freedom and the pursuit of the American dream. It was decommissioned in 1985 after being deemed ‘irrelevant’ and replaced by the Interstate Highway System. It’s still possible to travel portions of it since it was designated National Scenic Byway ‘Historic Route 66′. To complete the entire journey from Chicago to Los Angeles as it would have been in the 20th century requires a large amount of map reading, but is well worth the effort.
As well as Route 66, America offers so many vast open roads, it’s hard to know where to begin. As a rule, the byways are the traditional two-lane stuff of legend, whereas highways tend to be more like monotonous motorways. To help you choose, we’ve found five very different routes to help you explore this magnificent and sprawling country in the 21st century:
Best for mountains: Blue Ridge Parkway
Originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway when it was commissioned in the 1930s, the Blue Ridge Parkway meanders through the meadows and valleys of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It connects northern Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in southern North Carolina.
The drive takes you through astonishing mountain vistas, best seen in autumn when the area’s many trees change colour and blaze with reds, golds and yellows. It’s a slow, relaxing route interspersed with plenty of opportunities for picnics, camping and side trips down hiking trails or into nearby communities. For a dose of history, stop at Humpback Rocks, where 19th-century Appalachian skills and traditions are demonstrated, and Mabry Mill, Floyd County, Virginia. Lodges and restaurants are available along the parkway.
Length: 755km/469 miles
Location: North Carolina and Virginia
Best for glaciers: Alaska’s Marine Highway
Not strictly a highway, Alaska’s Marine Highway is actually a ferry system, although it was declared an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration (an honour given to only 27 roads with features unique enough to turn them into a tourist attraction in their own right) and receives federal highway funding. It’s one of the few ferry systems in America with transport, not leisure, as its primary purpose and it carries around 350,000 passengers and 100,000 cars every year. The system stretches from Bellingham, Washington to Unalaska, with 32 terminals, incredible views of the roughly hewn Alaskan fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and plenty of wildlife, including whales, in between.
It takes just under three days to travel from Bellingham to Skagway and 18 hours from Sitka to Juneau. Cabins cost extra (this is not a luxury cruise!) but an even better idea (depending on the weather, of course) is to simply set up a tent or just lay out a sleeping bag on deck and watch the northern lights dance overhead.
Length: 5,633km/3,500 miles
Location: Southwest Alaska
Best for coastline: Pacific Coast
If you could do only one road trip in a convertible, this is it. Known in Oregon as the Pacific Coast Byway and in California as Highway 1, Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) depending what part of it you’re on, this route is almost as legendary as Route 66 (the PCH section is a designated All-American Road). It snakes along hugging the coast from the northwest tip of the USA at Olympic National Park all the way down to San Diego, close to the Mexican border.
Redwood National Park, the logging and fishing communities of Washington and Big Sur, with its jagged mountains plunging down to pounding surf, are highlights as well as the energetic cities of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. At times it can feel like you’re the last person left alive on earth, but with that view and the salty wind in your hair, you don’t even care.
Length: 1,500km/932 miles
Location: California, Oregon, Washington
Best for plains: Native American Scenic Byway
The Native American Scenic Byway offers a chance to enjoy both the rolling prairie views and journey into the heart of the Sioux nation who have lived and worked on this land for centuries. The route takes you through the reservations of four tribes of Lakota Sioux (Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock), passing lakes, streams, roaming buffalo and the Missouri River. Along the way monuments, museums and sacred sites teach you about the Sioux people. A highlight is Sitting Bull memorial, near Mobridge, South Dakota. It apparently contains the remains of Sitting Bull, a revered and influential Sioux chief who was murdered by government agents in 1889.
Length: 575km/357 miles
Location: North Dakota and South Dakota
Best for desert: Death Valley Scenic Byway
More of an experience than a drive, the Death Valley Scenic Byway sweeps you through some of the most dramatic, rugged and unique landscapes in America. To get the most out of it, step out of the car and hike a few of the well-marked trails. Stop at marked viewpoints and take in panoramas of the valleys and peaks that rise and fall from over a mile above sea level to 86m (282ft) below (the lowest point in North America). Salt pans, coloured rocks eroded by the wind and rain and shifting sands make for desolate, eerie viewing.
Length: 302km/188 miles
Best for a little bit of everything
If you find it hard to choose just one of America’s striking features to see, head for the roads that take in as many as possible. Running coast to coast between Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco, the US-20 traverses the Rocky and Appalachian mountains, the Great Plains, the deserts of Utah and Nevada, the Wild West and Silicon Valley to give a good cross-section of American society, history and culture.
A bit further south, the old US-80 joins San Diego in California to Savannah, Georgia. Landscapes shift and change as quickly as the people and the cuisine. For a culinary or musically themed road trip, this might be your bet: Tex-Mex, Cajun, BBQ and Creole can be munched to the sounds of a huge variety of music, from honky-tonk or gospel to country and western.
An excellent source for further information on American road trips is the National Scenic Byways Program.